Plain City Jonathan Alder standout hitter Ava Francis rose up and crushed a big hit that Ward dug up, only to see it go behind her for an Alder point.
In disbelief, Ward could only shrug at the result. From there, Alder closed out the set with nine of the next 13 points for a four-game win over Norwalk at Lexington High School.
Alder won by scores of 25-19, 25-23, 20-25 and 25-17.
Norwalk ends its season at 17-10 overall. No. 11-ranked Pioneers advanced to Saturday’s 2 p.m. regional championship against powerhouse and No. 5-ranked Parma Heights Holy Name.
“They had us on our heels,” Norwalk coach Sarah Kipp said. “We just didn’t take care of the ball. Our serve receive struggled, and so we weren’t able to run our offense as a result. We had way too many unforced errors against a team of that caliber.”
Norwalk raced out to an early 8-3 lead in Game 1, mostly as Alder repeatedly hit the ball out of bounds or served it out of bounds. A combined block by Maria Clouse and Ward gave Norwalk the 8-3 lead and sent the Pioneers into a timeout.
They responded by scoring the next six points for a 9-8 lead, as the early presence of Emma Shepherd was felt. She added two more kills to put her team up 15-11.
Norwalk closed within two points two different times, but a double-hit violation and an ace from Francis put Alder up 20-15 and in control. It was a 23-19 lead for the Pioneers when the lights briefly went out in the gym, but power was responded in less than 30 seconds.
It only took about a minute for the Pioneers to score the final two points of the 25-19 win.
The second game was Norwalk’s best chance to not play from behind the rest of the match.
It led 12-8 early, then still led at 19-17 off a clean kill to the right corner by senior Carly Bilton.
But Alder responded with four straight points to take a 21-19 lead, capped by Shepherd with a kill from the back row. It was tied at 21 moments later when Delaney Thomas got a kill, and the teams traded points to again be tied at 23.
But a lob by Jaden Phelps found the floor on the Norwalk side, and Francis had another easy kill to close out a 25-23 win and a 2-0 lead for Alder.
“They are nice aggressive players who both play all the way around, and hit the ball from both the front row and back row,” Kipp said of Francis and Shepherd. “I think at times we lost track of where hitters were at and they capitalized on that.”
With it’s season on the line in Game 3, Norwalk responded.
The Ladies in Blue again jumped out to a fast start and led 10-5 when Ward and Thomas teamed up for a block. Ward then went to the service line and was able to get the Pioneers out of system for three consecutive points, putting her team up 17-8.
It was a formality when a Thomas kill put Norwalk up 23-14, but perhaps in a telling shift of momentum, Alder did score six of the next eight points before an out of bounds serve gave Norwalk the 25-20 win.
“They answered the challenge of the moment,” Kipp said of her team being down 2-0. “They came out and took care of the ball in Game 3 and had minimal unforced errors. And we were able to run our offense, which caught them off guard.”
Game 4 was tied in the very early stages, but Alder found another scoring spree with Shepherd anchoring the front row for a 14-8 lead. Norwalk briefly climbed back into it, with Bilton and Clouse teaming on a block, then Claire Kelley put down a kill for a 15-13 deficit.
But that is when Francis got free again, as she went on to register four kills during her team’s final 10 points in closing out the win.
“We were successful in the third set, but then came out in Game 4 and went right back on our heels and lost control of the game,” Kipp said.
Ward had six kills, four blocks, 14 assists and 25 digs to pace Norwalk, with Claire Kelley adding seven kills and 16 digs. Thoas had six kills and three blocks, and Bilton added five kills and two blocks. Haleigh Skinner added 13 digs and Elyse Balduff finished with 10.
Kipp reflected on a season that saw Norwalk battle its way through adversity on and off the court with various injuries and a challenging schedule. After going 13-9 in the regular season and sharing the SBC Lake Division title with Bellevue, Norwalk went in to win four tournament matches by winning 12 of a possible 13 sets on the way to Thursday’s matchup.
This season was the program’s 21st league championship and 12th district championship.
“I’m absolutely so proud of the girls we have,” Kipp said. “They came in the gym door every day and did 100 percent of what we asked them to do. They were co-conference champs and district champions for a reason.
“Did it end how we wanted it to? Absolutely not,” she added. “But they fought through a lot and put themselves in this position.”