Olivia Ward looked up to them, literally and figuratively. Haleigh Skinner was starstruck. And Claire Kelley knew she was hooked.
Those three stood as fifth-graders in the hallways of Main Street School in Norwalk and watched in awe on a cold November day in 2012. Passing through the halls was the high school volleyball team, which visited teach school on its way to the state semifinals Dayton.
“I can still remember saying that I wanted to be there, and be just as good and be the same people that they were — people that I looked up to,” Ward said. “When I saw them hit, pass or set, I told myself it would be really cool to be one of those girls.”
Skinner recalls being able to actually practice with that particular team once.
“They were all so good,” she said. “I can remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really cool. This is going to be us one day.’”
That time is here.
While the current Norwalk seniors watched in 2012 as that team finished as Division II state runners-up, things haven’t been as smooth in the present.
It’s what makes Thursday’s appearance in a Div. II regional semifinal vs. No. 10-ranked Plain City Jonathan Alder at 7:30 p.m. in Lexington all the more special.
“I don’t think anyone saw us here,” said Ward, the team’s setter. “People thought we were worse than last year, and that motivated us to do more and be better.”
Ups and downs
From 2012-16, Norwalk made three regional appearances — advancing to the finals each time.
For a stretch from 2010-17, Norwalk also won 76 straight league matches and eight consecutive league championships. It played for a district title every year from 2011-17.
That made falling short of a league title in the final match of the regular season and not reaching a district title match in 2018 all the more jarring.
“Perseverance describes this team,” second-year coach Sarah Kipp said. “These kids came back in hungry in January and have worked through a lot. They’ve faced a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs. Our offseason schedule was really, really heavy with competition.”
But even the regular season brought a new set of challenges. On the surface, a 13-9 record doesn’t turn heads. However, a deeper dive shows an SBC Lake title share with Bellevue. There are losses to three teams that are also in the Sweet 16 this week (Painesville Riverside, Gates Mills Gilmour Academy, Mantua Crestwood), a fourth team that was ranked 11th in Div. I (Perrysburg), and setbacks against two other teams that won at least 16 matches.
Even at the end of the regular season, there was a reality check in a five-game loss at Bellevue that led to the league title split. But since then, Norwalk has dropped just one set in four tournament matches — which came against the same Lady Red (19-6) team in the district championship match on Oct. 24 at Seneca East.
“We just pulled together and told ourselves, ‘Listen, if we want to do this, we have to change our mindset and give it our all,’” Kelley said. “This is our last year for most of us. We decided together as a team this was what we wanted to do, and went to work to do it.”
Kipp cited an example of a big gain from an 0-3 weekend at the Perrysburg Invitational on Sept. 28 as a way her team improved. Norwalk fell to the host Yellow Jackets, Lewis Center Olentangy and Oregon Clay.
“Going in and losing three matches like we did wasn’t fun,” she said. “But we saw three really good teams where we can step away from that and say, ‘Here is what we have to work on by the time the tournament gets here.’
“That is why we play those teams,” Kipp added. “We’re prepared for the tournament, and this year it’s paid off. I never lost faith in these kids. Not for one second.”
Senior hitter Delaney Thomas said the team communicated through injuries and hardship.
“We’re a pretty close team and we do a good job of communicating and working as a family,” she said. “We’re taking that mentality into Thursday and working hard as a team.”
Filling the banner
Norwalk doesn’t just take a 17-9 record into Thursday’s matchup with Alder. It also takes a tradition that runs five decades deep.
Last week’s win over Bellevue was the program’s 12th district championship trophy since 1982. It also has 21 league championships and three regional titles since 1978.
Kelley, Skinner, Thomas and Ward each experienced that expectation in different ways as freshmen in 2016. That Norwalk team beat Celina in the regional semifinals and fell to powerhouse Parma Padua in the title match.
Ward and Kelley saw brief periods of action, but it was Thomas and Skinner forced into action when then-senior Sara Staley went down with an injury in the win over Celina.
“It was nerve-wracking to go in,” Skinner said. “You’re telling yourself, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in the match in a regional now as a freshman.’”
Kelley got to play with older sister, Alaina, during that time period.
“It was an incredible experience, and a lot of high energy, I remember,” Claire said. “We stuck through it and got within a win of state.”
Meanwhile, Ward looks back at that Elite Eight run in 2016 differently.
“Coming into high school and knowing what the expectation is, it’s something you have to live up to,” she said. “Not getting to a regional or winning a league title, and now doing it, it feels like a huge goal. But it also feels like we’re not doing yet.
“I wasn’t always on the floor (in 2016), so to get here now, t’s a bigger thing to be able to say we’re a key part of something like that,” Ward added. ”I just wanted to be on the bench back then because I didn’t want to go in and make a mistake. Now, I never want taken out of a match. It’s a totally different feeling because there is more responsibility on your back as a senior captain.”
Two years ago, Norwalk got updated banners representing all the sports history with league and district championships inside the gymnasium. The volleyball banner had no more room for an additional league title year to add to it — and room for just one more district title.
After last week, it’s completely filled in both areas.
“Our sophomore year we talked about filling the banner and we never did,” Skinner said. “Last year it was the same scenario, and then the same this year.
“And right before we got our medals on the bench last week someone mentioned it — we filled the banner,” she added. “We did it. That was an awesome moment.”