Story by John Blake
Photos by Steve Kurucz
Magnificat senior Nicole Keshock had the eye of the tiger in this one.
The 5-10 outside hitter took the Blue Steaks on her back and helped lead them to a five-set win over North Royalton Tuesday night in the Division I district volleyball semifinals at Strongsville High School.
Keshock, one of six seniors on the Magnificat squad, finished with a team-high 31 kills and flat out dominated when her team needed points at critical stretches. What may have seemed like an everlasting match ended in a 15-25, 26-24, 25-23, 27-29, 15-10 victory for the Blue Streaks, who advance to Thursday night's district final against Strongsville.
The Mustangs swept St. Joseph Academy in three sets 25-10, 25-14, 25-18 in Tuesday night's second semifinal match. They will face Magnificat in the district title match Thursday night at 7 p.m.
"At the end I was proud of our kids. They did a good job serving," said Magnificat head coach Mike Cannon, whose squad improved to 17-7.
"I thought if we could kind of get to that fifth game and stay close, we hoped our experience would come out. I think that's what happened tonight," he said.
As the match wore on, many of the six Blue Streak seniors stepped up. If only the young Bears had more.
North Royalton, which finished its season at 17-7, pushed the more experienced Blue Streaks to the brink with a roster that includes only two seniors. In addition to senior Melissa Kozik, head coach Kristin Hubbell had been relying all season on some of her four sophomores. All things considered, the Bears went out with plenty of pride.
North Royalton took control right out of the gate, scoring 14 of the game's 17 points to end the first set. The Blue Streaks appeared to be in some trouble, but apparently were just saving their energy for the second and third sets.
Both teams battled tough during these lengthy and competitive sets, but it were Magnificat that outlasted the Bears to take a 2-1 lead heading into the fourth set.
"We were really high energy and we talked about that," Hubbell said. "They bring a lot of fans and celebrate every point, and we had to match their energy.
"I thought in the first game, we had that. We're young, got quiet and kind of gave the energy back to them. Skill-wise, we can match up against anybody we play. It's just the emotional part of the match," she said.
In the second set, Magnificat trailed, 20-16, before Keshock began to take over.
The Blue Streaks basically put the ball in her hands as she scored six of the next seven Magnificat points to tie it up at 23-23. As the Bears were closing the gap late in Game 3, Keshock responded by scoring three of the game's four points to give her team a 22-19 advantage.
"She was awesome," Cannon said. "She's a three-year starter for us. I have no doubt this was the biggest match she's had for us.
"We were just calling her number all night long from different places on the floor and she really did a good job. She was not going to settle for anything but a win," he said.
North Royalton certainly did not lay down. Kozik did her best to match Keshock - as three straight kills helped keep the Bears alive late in a wild fourth set. The season was on the line for the Bears and they weren't about to let it end after four.
"As far as our team goes, they play hard," said Hubbell.
"We don't have perfect anything. We're young. They played really hard so for us, and I think that shows character and heart. They didn't want this to be Melissa's last game. We're not going to lose this game, let's make it go to a fifth (set).
"That was kind of the determination for them."
Continuing what had been a trend the whole match, the Bears and Blue Streaks went back and forth to start the fifth and final set. They were tied 8-8 before Keshock scored two crucial unanswered points.
North Royalton cut the lead to 10-9, but the Blue Streaks recorded five of the next six points. The only North Royalton point in that span came as a result of a poor Magnificat serve.
A spike by junior Sheila Cooney sealed the deal for the Blue Streaks. Senior Michaela Gabanic had 13 kills and junior Kelly Sullivan added 11. Senior setter Claire Lambert tallied a team-high 62 assists.
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