The seniors for the Pickerington High School North girls volleyball team fought hard to the bitter end.
That end was a 21-25, 25-14, 20-25, 25-20, 15-8 loss to Massillon Jackson in a Division I regional final Nov. 3 at Hilliard Davidson.
"In the fifth game, when (Jackson) got to 13 or 14, we could've let the ball hit the floor and walk away, but that's not the type of girls we have. They kept fighting and we got five or six points there," said coach Kris Kern, whose team finished 26-2. "The problem was that we struggled with serve receive in that game, and when you fall behind like we did in a game to 15, that's just too much of a hole. (Jackson) finished game four with the momentum and rode the wave."
In the fourth game, North led 17-13 and seemed ready to ride the momentum of the third game into its first state appearance.
But the Polar Bears scored the next five points to take the lead. With the score tied at 19, Jackson scored three in a row on kills by Paige Hill, a Miami University recruit.
Jackson led 3-0 and 9-2 in the fifth game.
"I had a pretty good feeling after the third game and midway through the fourth, but we ran into some trouble with our serve receive that we hadn't had all season," Kern said. "We didn't get the last injection of momentum we needed to put them away in the fourth game, they came back and beat us and they carried that over. As we continued to struggle in the fifth game, they were firing on all cylinders."
In a regional semifinal Nov. 1 at Davidson, the Panthers avenged their only regular-season loss by beating Westerville Central 25-15, 25-23, 25-8. North lost to the Warhawks 15-25, 25-22, 25-20, 25-23 on Sept. 24.
It was the second consecutive season the Panthers came up just short in their bid to reach state.
Last season, North also led after three games before losing to Findlay 17-25, 25-23, 20-25, 26-24, 15-9 in a regional final to finish 26-2.
"Our seniors finished 100-10, never lost a match in the district or in the OCC and were back-to-back regional runners-up," Kern said. "They wanted to be the first from North at state, so that's why it's difficult. But there's just no shame, just a lot of broken hearts."
The eight seniors had a hand in four district championships and extended the Panthers' winning streak to 86 matches in the OCC-Ohio Division.
The senior starters were Marina Divine, Megan Giardina, Katie Hunt, Val Jeffery and Rachel Mick. The other seniors, who played in rotations, were Marissa Divine, Tianna Diyanni and Alexa Goldsberry.
"In my 30-plus years as a coach, I've had some good teams, but I grew really fond of this group," Kern said. "They were special and I love them. I wanted it so bad for them. I wanted the players and parents to experience state like I did last year as a parent with my son Connor (with the Central boys basketball team). Nobody deserved to play at state more than this group did. Sometimes you don't get what you deserve. It's a life lesson. That doesn't diminish what this group did or how special this group was."
Giardina and Jeffery were first-team all-district and Hunt was honorable mention. Giardina and Jeffery were first-team all-league and Hunt was on the second team. Also on the all-league team were Marina Divine (special mention) and Diyanni (honorable mention).
The Panthers went 14-0 to win the league title ahead of Gahanna (11-3), Newark and Grove City (both 9-5), Lancaster (7-7), Pickerington Central (4-10), Groveport (2-12) and Reynoldsburg (0-14).
Giardina (Clemson) and Jeffery (High Point) will play collegiately next season.
"Those two were the best setters in the state and got the publicity, as did (junior) Jessie Wachtman, but Katie Hunt, the Divine sisters, Tianna Diyanni and Alexa Goldsberry all had huge roles and played very well for us," Kern said. "They will be missed also. They were undersized kids with huge hearts."
The lone starter expected to return is Wachtman, who was first-team all-league and second-team all-district. Kern said she is drawing attention from Division I college programs.
Central endures losing season
Central will lose seniors Alexis Newsome, Baile Simon, Aliya Thompson and Megan Ward after finishing 8-15 overall.
The Tigers, under second-year coach Aubrie Perry, lost to host Chillicothe 25-17, 25-18, 25-14 in the first round of the Division I district tournament Oct. 16.
Newsome is a 6-foot-3 middle blocker who will play at Xavier next year and was first-team all-district.
Expected to return are juniors Shalon Conley, Uchenna Itanyi, Adelia Manley and Jailynn Wood, sophomore Edwina Barrett and freshmen Maria Bauers, Emma Campbell and Macy Selan.
League wins for Central were against Reynoldsburg (25-19, 25-27, 25-14, 25-20 on Aug. 30 and 25-8, 25-17, 25-16 on Sept. 25) and Groveport (19-25, 25-18, 25-21, 25-19 on Sept. 13 and 25-16, 25-23, 25-22 on Oct. 9).