Newark Catholic coach Jeri Helfer has the same expectations each year.
It has become ritualistic each August to ask Helfer where she believes her current team can reach. The answer is always the same: the state tournament.
Except, the Green Wave were on the verge of their longest stretch without a state qualifier in the tournament’s almost 40-year history. With only two seniors and key question marks in the rotation, it was difficult to see this year’s team being the one to get NC back among the state’s elite.
Boy, did the Green Wave prove everyone wrong. NC had its ups and downs during the season. The Green Wave lost out on the Licking County League title because of two five-set nailbiting losses to Licking Valley. But they also had uneven play within sets and matches they won.
Everything changed when NC hit the postseason. Rather than cruise through district play, the Green Wave refocused and were ready for their regional run.
Unbelievably, a program with 17 previous state tournament appearances and several more regional trips entered the regional as the underdog. That is exactly what NC was, and the Green Wave thrived beating Waterford in four sets before dominating nemesis Beaver Eastern.
NC swept the Eagles in three sets in easily its best match of the season. The Green Wave had gotten revenge for the past two years and had NC back in the state tournament since 2008. The drought matched from 1992-97 and 1999-2004 for the longest stretch between state tournament appearances.
“Nobody really believed in us at the beginning of the year,” Helfer said. “To come here is not only a credit to the whole team but to these seniors. They absolutely led us. They got a lot of a load dropped on them this summer with some people not coming back, and I definitely think they did a great job of leading us.”
The storybook did not end with the Green Wave’s ninth state championship and first since 2004. Instead, NC lost its sharp play in the state semifinal and fell to eventual runner-up Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph in three sets.
“It is such an honor to feel like I made my community proud,” senior Maddie Wirth said. “Even though we didn’t win, we made it back to Wright State, which in of itself is an accomplishment. We have been here 18 times as a program, and that is just so great. Knowing that we got us back here, being our senior year, it is such a great feeling.”
The Green Wave might have felt lacking support during the regular season, but that changed during the postseason. NC volleyball has some of the closest-knit alumni in the area, and they were out in full force at the regional matches in Lancaster.
Leading up to state tournament, alumni sent texts and emails with congratulations and well wishes. Abby Litts, a member of the Green Wave’s past two state qualifiers and student at the University of Dayton, found her way to the bench and helped take statistics.
NC assistant coach Kenzie Egan was Litts’ teammate. They suffered through a heartbreaking five-set loss to Maria Stein Marion Local.
“I think that they really wanted to be in our shoes again,” senior Becca Kapavik said. “Kenzie said if she could give anything, she would go back to the day that they played in state. I really think they wanted to be back in our shoes, but they were happy for us.”