Even with it being the eighth meeting between Norwalk and Bellevue in the last three seasons, whichever team won the first game won the match.
After dropping a tough Game 3, Norwalk finished in emphatic fashion, topping the Lady Red, 25-15, 27-25, 16-25, 25-18 in a Division II district championship at Seneca East High School on Thursday.
"I am super happy," Norwalk senior Olivia Ward said. "We worked as a team tonight. We did not let what was on the other side affect our playing."
Norwalk improved to 17-9 and advances to next Thursday's 7:30 p.m. regional semifinal at Lexington High School against an opponent to be named on Saturday. It is Norwalk's first district title since 2016.
"You study a lot of film. You prepare that way," Norwalk coach Sarah Kipp said of the eight meetings in three seasons. "At the end of the day, you have to focus on your side of the net and taking care of the ball. I feel like my kids did that for the most part tonight."
A block by Marie Clouse and a service ace by Olivia Ward put Norwalk up early in Game 4 — a lead it never relinquished. After a kill by Taylor Baxter, it was kills from Mya Neuberger and Carly Bilton, sandwiched around an error by the Lady Red (19-6) that gave Norwalk a 5-1 lead.
Norwalk maintained the lead and only allowed it to dip as low as one point. The last time Bellevue was within a point was at 14-13 after one of Beyah Garcia's five blocks. But, Norwalk won the next four points and held a 18-13 lead.
The Lady Red cut the lead to four points, but Ward served up an ace and Bellevue was called for a four hits error to make it 23-16. Bilton added a kill and Baxter's last swing went into the net, giving Norwalk the win.
"We know what each other does," Bellevue coach Karen Irons said. "It is a matter of execution. Norwalk executed a little bit better than we did tonight."
The two teams had split two regular-season meetings, with each winning at home. Norwalk took a 25-22, 28-30, 25-21, 25-16 win on Sept. 17 while Bellevue responded on Oct. 10, 29-27, 25-27, 23-25, 25-19, 15-13 to split the Sandusky Bay Conference Lake division title between the two.
"I had three kids on that 2016 team that went to the regional final," Kipp said. "Experience absolutely wins out. Last year, we were the inexperienced team - a bunch of juniors and sophomores on the floor. My seniors have stepped up huge in the last two matches."
Norwalk came out on fire in Game 1. Four straight points gave Norwalk a 5-2 advantage and later, Claire Kelley served up an ace to make it 9-4.
The lead only dipped down to four points, as Norwalk kept the pressure on the Lady Red. A run of six consecutive points made it 24-14 and after a Baxter kill, Neuberger slammed home a powerful swing to take the opening game.
"It makes it more fun," Ward said. "There is more competition between us two. Bellevue is our biggest rival within the conference. They are a good team."
Game 2 saw more back-and-forth action, but Bellevue was the first to take the upper hand. The Lady Red won three straight points for a 11-7 edge and continued to show an increased level of play from Game 1.
The lead ballooned to as much as seven points at 17-10 and again at 18-11 after an error by Norwalk. But, Norwalk was not going to be denied. Bilton, Ward, and Kelley put down kills in order to force a timeout from Irons. Norwalk continued to fight and claw and even tool a 22-21 lead on a Bilton kill before a scary situation occurred.
Claire Turner registered a kill to tie the game, but fell to the floor as the gym fell silent. The game was halted for about five minutes before Turner was helped to the locker room. She did not return to the gym after.
"That was our No. 3 hitter," said Irons of the freshman. "We had to put someone in there that is a JV player, so we lose an option. Claire has been coming on the last half of the season. You lose a whole option, so Norwalk knew where we were going to in Taylor and Kailee (Felder)."
Once action resumed, a service error by Bellevue and a net violation quickly gave Norwalk two game points. The Lady Red fended them off, and another one off before Elyse Balduff tallied her only kill of the night for the commanding lead.
"With Claire going down with the injury — if we could have pulled that second game out, that would have changed the whole momentum of the match," Irons said. "Chloe (Herrera) came in and did a great job for us."
Bellevue again surged in Game 3 to keep hopes alive. The Lady Red trailed, 7-6, but used points in bunches to take a 17-11 lead after a service ace by Gabi Heuring.
"We did not come out in Game 3 the way we needed to coming off the high from the win in Game 2," Kipp said. "We needed to come out a little bit stronger in Game 3."
Norwalk never recovered after falling behind, and a service ace by Kami Hay kept the Lady Red alive.
"(Losing last year) absolutely makes this sweeter," Kipp said. "I was not the head coach four years ago when they came into the program. All but three of them played for me. They literally have played for me for four years and you can not ask for a better group of kids. They work so hard."
Baxter, who had a career-high 31 kills in the five-game Bellevue win two weeks ago, tallied 22 kills on 61 of 66 hitting. She added 20 digs and two blocks while connecting on 12 of 13 serves. Felder, who had a career-high 27 kills in that same match, added 18 kills on 36 of 46 hitting with 17 digs and three blocks.
"We had a lot of unforced errors," Irons said. "Give Norwalk credit for that. We had lots of hitting errors tonight that we have not had in the last five or six matches."
Bullion tallied 39 assists, giving her a final tally of 2,739 for her career — good for 18th most in OHSAA history. Hay (11 of 11 serving) nabbed 38 digs, while Bouillon had 16 digs.
"We ran Taylor out of the middle when Claire went down just to give her a little bit more option of trying to hit around Norwalk's block," Irons said. "Norwalk forced Kailee into some unforced errors with their blocking tonight."
Bilton paced Norwalk with 12 kills while Neuberger added 11 kills. Kelley had 23 digs and nine kills, Balduff had 10 digs, Clouse had six blocks, and Ward contributed 32 assists and 12 digs.
"Claire Kelley had nine kills on two errors," Kipp said. "She was smart and kept the ball in play. She had 23 digs playing middle-back. That is an adjustment for her because she has played left-back all year. She did a nice job tonight."