Making its third appearance in a state final, the Big Walnut High School girls volleyball team hoped this would be the one for longtime coach Ron Lehman.
The Golden Eagles entered the Division II state final against top-ranked Parma Padua Franciscan on Nov. 11 at Wright State University with 14 consecutive victories, but failed to win a set in a 25-20, 25-14, 25-10 loss to finish 25-4 overall.
The Bruins, who also finished 25-4, won their second consecutive state championship and third title in five years.
Big Walnut led 14-10 in the first set before Padua closed out the set on a 15-6 run. The Bruins jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the second set and raced out to a 7-2 lead in the third set. Padua compiled 47 digs.
Junior setter Machaela Podraza had seven kills, 12 assists and six digs to lead the seventh-ranked Golden Eagles, who also were state runners-up in 2010 and 1991.
"I didn't feel like we'd played as well as we played the night before (against Kettering Alter in the state semifinal), and we were emotionally drained," Lehman said. "We struggled on defense. That was probably the biggest thing. ... Offensively, we had some amazing hits that they dug. We just couldn't put the ball away on them."
Big Walnut rallied to beat second-ranked Alter 22-25, 19-25, 28-26, 25-23, 15-9 on Nov. 10 at Wright State. Down two sets to none, the Golden Eagles trailed 20-14 in the third set before rallying to win, and then won the fourth and fifth sets.
Podraza had 17 kills, 22 assists, 14 digs and four serving aces to lead Big Walnut. Junior middle hitter Kaley Rammelsberg had 15 kills, junior outside hitter Kelsie Imertreijs had 14 kills and 14 digs, junior setter Sammi Bickley had 26 assists and senior libero Meredith Thomas and junior outside hitter Emily Vance both added 17 digs.
"That was an incredible match," Lehman said. "I thought we were in real trouble when we were down in the third (set). But when we came back and won, right then I thought we were going to do it."
Seeded second of 21 teams in the district tournament, the Golden Eagles won their 17th district championship under Lehman, defeating fourth-seeded London 25-17, 25-21, 26-24 in a final Oct. 28.
Big Walnut then defeated Dover 25-12, 24-26, 25-16, 25-22 in a regional semifinal Nov. 2 and Granville 25-23, 23-25, 25-21, 25-23 in a regional final Nov. 4 to reach state for the first time since 2010 and seventh overall.
The Golden Eagles won their 14th OCC-Capital Division championship in 18 years, going 10-0 in league play to finish ahead of Canal Winchester (8-2), New Albany and Newark (both 5-5), Groveport (2-8) and Franklin Heights (0-10).
Big Walnut is losing four seniors, including Thomas, middle hitter Emma Gebele (honorable mention all-league) and outside hitter Emma Urhammer.
Among the expected return-ees are Bickley (honorable mention all-district, second-team all-league), Imertreijs (honorable mention all-state, first-team all-district and all-league), Podraza (second-team all-district, first-team all-league), Rammelsberg, Vance, junior defensive specialist Lauren Speelman and sophomore outside and middle hitter Kassie Bowmar.
"It looks pretty promising for next year," said Lehman, who expects to return for his 29th season next year. "We've got some holes to fill, but we have a lot of possibilities and a good foundation to build on."
OCC title highlights football team's season
Highlighting the football team's season was its first league championship since 2011.
Big Walnut finished 4-6 overall but went 4-1 in the OCC-Capital to share the league title with New Albany. Canal Winchester and Franklin Heights tied for third in the league at 3-2, followed by Newark (1-4) and Groveport (0-5).
New Albany and Canal Winchester both qualified for the playoffs in Division II, Region 7. The Golden Eagles finished 16th in the region, eight spots shy of a playoff berth.
Big Walnut opened the season 0-5 before winning four consecutive games, beating Newark 47-14 on Sept. 29, Franklin Heights 21-14 on Oct. 6, New Albany 14-0 on Oct. 13 and Groveport 14-13 on Oct. 20.
The Golden Eagles lost to Canal Winchester 38-6 in their season finale Oct. 27, missing an opportunity to finish .500 and win the league title outright.
Big Walnut is losing 17 seniors, including running back and defensive end Eli Myers (first-team all-district and all-league), linemen Caleb Pierce (second-team all-district, first-team all-league), Tanner Daniels (special mention all-district, first-team all-league), Luke Apple (honorable mention all-district, first-team all-league) and Curtis Bowmar (second-team all-league), receivers Colin White (first-team all-league) and Jackson Seiple (second-team all-league), running back and linebacker Abe Myers (first-team all-league) and quarterback and punter Tyler Ronk (first-team all-league as punter, second-team all-league as quarterback).
Pierce shared OCC-Capital Offensive Player of the Year honors with Franklin Heights quarterback Cody Little.
Joe Weaver shared OCC-Capital Coach of the Year honors with New Albany's Pat Samanich.
Among the expected return-ees are junior running back Nathan Lawyer (honorable mention all-district, first-team all-league), junior receiver and linebacker Sam Elliott (second-team all-league), sophomore linemen Max Lenz (second-team all-league) and Trevor Shuster (special mention all-league), junior lineman Josh Hageman (honorable mention all-league), junior tight end and defensive lineman C.J. Rockwell and junior running back and linebacker Andy VanHouten.