Panthers met their own high expectations
Eight seniors will be remembered as the group that finally captured the Hilliard Darby High School boys volleyball team's first state championship.
However, coach Bryan Webb recognizes that past experiences helped mold this year's squad, which defeated Cincinnati Elder 25-17, 25-15, 25-27, 25-23 in the Division I state final May 26 at Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit.
"This was our fourth season at state, so this senior class had a ton of experience and had grown together every season with past classes in front of them leading the way," Webb said. "But there's no doubt about it, this group was special. They've been training with me and with each other year-round through club or at Darby and they were groomed to win.
"They felt like they were the best team in the state and they carried themselves like they were. They had high expectations and so did I, but anything can happen. Sometimes the best teams don't always win. But they took care of business."
Darby finished 24-2 overall, with its losses coming against Cincinnati Moeller (25-19, 22-25, 26-24, 15-25, 15-10 on April 20) and Northbrook (Ill.) Glenbook North (25-21, 25-21 in the Warrenville South Tiger Classic on March 30 in Wheaten, Ill.).
The Panthers won their 14th consecutive league title, going 10-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division to finish ahead of Bradley (7-3), Davidson (7-3), Dublin Coffman (3-7), Upper Arlington (2-8) and Thomas Worthington (1-9), and rolled through the postseason.
Ranked second in the final state poll behind Moeller, Darby had a first-round bye in the East Region tournament and defeated Pickerington Central 25-3, 25-7, 25-11 in a semifinal May 15 and Olentangy Liberty 25-3, 25-7, 25-12 in a final May 18 to advance to state.
The Panthers defeated Clayton Northmont 25-20, 25-11, 25-18 in a state quarterfinal May 25 and beat Moeller 24-26, 25-17, 25-20, 25-17 in a state semifinal May 26 before facing Elder later that day.
The win over Elder was Darby's third this season, as the Panthers also won 25-22, 25-15, 25-16 on April 27 and 25-14, 25-20, 25-13 on May 4.
"We couldn't have asked for a much better season than this," said Webb, who was named state and East Region Coach of the Year. "I think what enabled us to achieve this is the balance and athleticism we had. You can't win it all with a few hitters and a setter. You need to be strong in every aspect of the game and we were at all positions.
"Plus, our tall hitters can play all the way around. We weren't role players or specialists. We were very athletic."
Senior Jarrod Kelso, a 6-foot-6 middle hitter, was named Division I Player of the Year and East Region Player of the Year. Senior Thane Fanfulik, a 6-4 setter, was first-team all-state and all-region and senior J.B. Brinkerhoff, a 6-5 outside hitter, was second-team all-state and first-team all-region.
Seniors Zach Kuebler (middle hitter) and Steven Prosser (libero) were honorable mention all-region. Rounding out the seniors are Nic Baker (outside hitter), Eric Bowman (middle hitter), and Clay Schmidt (middle hitter).
Kelso finished the season with 259 kills and 59 blocks and a .657 hitting percentage, Brinkerhoff had 238 kills and a .457 hitting percent and Fanfulik had 767 assists (9.1 per game), 37.5 blocks and 38 aces on 288 service attempts.
Kuebler had 30 aces on 286 service attempts, Prosser had a team-high 364 passes and Baker had 259 passes.
Junior right-side hitter Jesse Print, who had 143 kills, is expected to be the Panthers' most experienced returnee next year.
"The great thing about having a complete program is that we believe we have a strong senior class ready to go next year," Webb said. "They will carry the torch, make plays and win games. They may not be as tall or as athletic, but we're solid through the program for several more years. Because we were so strong, we substituted a lot this year and got these other guys some experience."