The Hilliard Darby High School boys volleyball team can scratch off the first item on its list of goals after winning its 14th consecutive league championship.
After losing their OCC-Ohio Division opener to Dublin Coffman 25-14, 25-18, 19-25, 22-25, 15-11 on April 3, the Panthers won their final nine matches, including a 25-13, 25-19, 25-14 victory over the Shamrocks in the rematch April 22.
Darby beat Davidson 24-26, 25-19, 25-16, 25-17 on April 29 and Bradley 25-19, 25-17, 25-15 on May 1 in its final two league matches.
"The boys were extremely motivated to win the league championship," coach Bryan Webb said. "To beat our cross-town rival (Davidson) on senior night was a great moment for these seniors. We talk about giving the kids a defining moment and, hopefully, that was one of many.
"We have a good group of character seniors (who) were bound to have the senior year they envisioned. There wasn't one particular turning point. We've really just focused on getting better every day and have been working on our weaknesses. We have a competitive group that wants to win."
Middle hitter Evan Prather and outside hitter Jesse Print lead the Panthers' seven seniors. The others are middle hitters Hunter Brayfield and Zach Cowen, outside hitter Joey Engel, libero Brian Lee and defensive specialist Austin Salyers.
Darby finished the regular season May 3 with losses to host Cincinnati Elder (25-16, 25-12, 25-19) and Clayton Northmont (19-25, 25-16, 25-16, 21-25, 16-14) to fall to 12-7 overall.
The Panthers, the defending Division I state champions, will begin theirs quest for a fifth consecutive state berth Friday, May 9, against Delaware at Davidson in the first round of the East Region tournament. The winner will play either Bradley or Pickerington Central on Tuesday, May 13, at Davidson. Darby is the top seed.
With few holdovers from last season, this year's Panthers want to make a name for themselves, Webb said. But there is work to do.
"We really need to stress serve-receive and blocking as far as skills go," Webb said. "We also need to cut back on the unforced errors, particularly when we have a lead. We haven't taken advantage of some chances to finish teams off when we're up."
Darby and Davidson both were 7-1 in league play entering their rematch. The Panthers had beaten the Wildcats 25-19, 15-25, 25-19, 21-25, 15-13 on April 10.
"That was one of the better environments we've had at Darby since I've been head coach," Webb said, referring to the April 29 match against Davidson. "It was a good crowd, very noisy, which really intensified the rivalry. Both teams wanted to beat each other badly and both teams fought their hardest."
Wildcats place second in league standings
Davidson bounced back from its most recent loss to Darby to beat Upper Arlington 25-7, 25-22, 25-15 on May 1 to improve to 15-7 overall and finish second in the OCC-Ohio at 8-2.
"Both matches with Darby were competitive and we showed signs of knocking them off, but just could not find a way to win," coach Jay Cauley said. "In the first match, we lost in the fifth game 15-13 and we out-pointed them in the match. The second match, we won the first game after a nice comeback but could not sustain that effort.
"Darby served more aggressively in the second match than they did in the first match, and we didn't execute, especially on the defensive side of the net. Darby made us pay for our defensive lapses."
Having fallen short in its bid for the OCC-Ohio championship, Davidson has shifted its focus to the postseason.
The Wildcats will begin Division I East Region play on Saturday, May 10, against Westerville South at Buckeye Valley. The winner will play Dublin Jerome or Upper Arlington on Tuesday, May 13, at Buckeye Valley.
Davidson is seeded third behind top-seeded Darby and Olentangy Liberty. Pickerington North is seeded fourth.
"The biggest thing with my guys right now, especially in matches with high quality opponents like Darby, has nothing to do with physical ability," Cauley said. "It is their mental focus. Being able to focus at crucial points and understand the situation is something that we haven't learned as a team yet. When we do that, we will be a very good team. Right now, we are just a good team."
The Wildcats have used a nine-player rotation this season while playing a difficult schedule.
"The kids have been challenged and they have handled it well," Cauley said. "This was a young team and we pushed them and the schedule pushed them. We have three players playing in new positions due to injury and depth issues, and they really responded.
"I don't think we have played our best volleyball yet, but the win over Mount Vernon (25-20, 20-25, 26-24 on April 25) showed me that we can find another level. Mount Vernon was the top (Division II) team in our region and was ranked second in the state."
Outside hitter Josh Russell had 18 kills on 44 attempts with only three errors in the rematch with Darby. Cauley said defensive specialist Ethan Foster and setter Jake Russell also have been key contributors to the team's success.
"If we can find a way to stay sharp for every point and start communicating with purpose on the floor, I think we will be playing well into May," Cauley said. "If we don't, we could easily not reach our goal of making the state tournament."
Jaguars coach wants to see better effort
Bradley improved to 6-10 overall and finished 5-5 in the OCC-Ohio after beating Upper Arlington 25-19, 25-15, 25-18 on May 2.
The Jaguars won three of their final four regular-season matches, beating Thomas Worthington 25-17, 25-21, 25-21 on April 28 and Coffman 25-12, 13-25, 23-25, 25-11, 15-9 on April 29 in league play before falling to league-rival Darby 25-19, 25-17, 25-15 on May 1.
Despite his team's recent play, coach Zach Franklin sees plenty of room for improvement.
"I have unfortunately been unhappy with our level of play," he said. "We have a good amount of talent on our team, but a lot of (that talent) is very young and inexperienced, which to me means that they need to work harder than boys who have been playing longer. We have struggled with giving effort both in practice and games, which is unacceptable for me as a coach. Our other main issue, and something we've been working on all year, is communication."
Franklin lauded the play of middle hitter Zac Davis and outside hitter Jackson Gilbert.
"Our two best players all season have been Zac Davis and Jackson Gilbert," Franklin said. "Zac is our unanimous captain and leader on the court. He is a football player and, with that (season) being done, he was able to play club last winter and grew his game tremendously. He leads our team in attack percentage and blocks and is always non-stop effort.
"Jackson really stepped up as a leader. He was the first freshman to ever start at Bradley last season and really worked to improve his passing in the offseason. He is our primary passer and leads the team in kills. He missed a couple of matches because of injury but is now healed and ready to go for postseason."
The Jaguars will compete the Division I East Region tournament, opening Friday, May 9, against Pickerington Central at Davidson. The winner will play top-seeded Darby or Delaware in the second round Tuesday, May 13, at Davidson.