In an emotionally-charged Class D regional final at Loy Norrix High School, eighth-ranked Athens gave top-ranked St. Philip its most competitive postseason match in over two years.
But Tigers’ senior outside hitter Sierra Hubbard-Neil would not be denied her fourth regional crown in as many seasons, as the Miss Volleyball Award finalist led St. Philip to a 3-1 (25-13, 25-15, 23-25, 25-14) victory over the Indians, and a date in the state quarterfinal round.
Hubbard-Neil played in honor of her late grandfather, Larry Neil, who passed away Thursday morning. The Western Michigan University-bound standout paid tribute with a match-high 25 kills and 20 digs.
“Before I walked into the gym, I was really emotional,” Hubbard-Neil said. “And even while I was playing, it was kind of hard to settle down. And after the last point, I just broke down into tears, it’s just hard not to.
“I just love all these girls, they are here to support me and help me through (losing) my grandpa. We’re just here to have one goal and one dream — to get back to state.”
St. Philip (61-7-2) advances to Tuesday’s state quarterfinal at Litchfield High School against fifth-ranked Hillsdale Academy. The Tigers have won the last seven Class D state titles, and have appeared in the state championship match for 12 consecutive seasons.
St. Philip head coach Vicky Groat credited her team for getting past a tough Athens squad, and praised Hubbard-Neil for her efforts on an emotional day.
“Sierra, she took over. It’s a tough day for Sierra, she lost her grandpa today,” Groat said. “She was playing with a heavy heart, so we wanted to win this for Sierra and her grandpa.”
Along with Hubbard-Neil, St. Philip was led by junior setter Emily Schaub with 49 assists, nine kills and five digs; senior middle hitter Emily Freybler had 14 kills and four digs; senior outside hitter Stephanie Gusching had six kills and three aces; senior defensive specialist Rachel Gallagher had 12 digs; junior outside hitter Megan Parker had 14 digs and three kills and sophomore middle hitter Abby McKinzie had 14 digs and four kills.
“With the schedule we’ve had and games like this one, it prepares us for the next game,” Groat said. “We have to be able to shake it off if we lose a set and regain our focus… I was proud of the girls the way they came back in Game 4.”
Athens (33-14-4) didn’t end its season quietly, as the Indians gave St. Philip its most competitive match in the state tournament since 2010 — the last time the Tigers dropped a set in the playoffs.
In Game 3, the Tigers held a 23-22 lead and looked primed to put Athens away. But the Indians rattled off three straight points to keep their season alive for at least one more set.
“The numbers don’t really show the effort, the heart and dedication they put out here on the floor,” said Athens head coach Jacy Nay. “They left it all out there, they tried hard. I just thought this was the best I’ve seen them play. They were ready, wanted to beat St. Phil, they got a game out of them. I think they were focused.”
Sophomore setter Jenny Smittendorf led Athens’ balanced attack with 19 assists, four digs and one block. Also for the Indians, junior middle hitter Teasha Swank had six kills, 12 digs and two blocks; senior outside hitter Audrey Oswalt had eight kills and three digs; senior libero Ashley Smittendorf had 15 digs; junior defensive specialist Allison Fuller had 16 digs, two kills and a block; senior middle hitter Siana Stanton had three kills, two aces and four blocks; junior outside hitter Hailee Hurst had four kills, one ace and four digs and junior defensive specialist Kelcie Weeks had seven digs.
“Nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve had a great season. Not the outcome we wanted, but we played extremely hard,” Nay said. “And if we’re going to go out, we might as well go out playing tough. There is no disgrace if you are playing your best.”