MUNCIE, Ind. — Leading 23-19 in the first set of Saturday’s Class A state championship volleyball match, Christian Academy of Indiana looked poised to jump out to the early lead it so desperately was seeking to position itself for a second straight state title.
But, as would become a trend throughout the rest of the match, Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian just wouldn’t go away.
The No. 3 Braves clawed back to tie the set at 23 and came back to win 27-25.
Blackhawk Christian made another early comeback in the second set and withstood a battling CAI squad from there to take the state title with a 3-1 (27-25, 25-13, 20-25, 25-20) win over the top-ranked Warriors at Ball State University’s Worthen Arena.
“I think we came out flat. I know we were up in the first set; we squandered it. I think we played timid and couldn’t put that first set away,” CAI coach Walter Pauly said. “That hurt us — that hurt us. But again, I need to reiterate to these girls that not many teams make it to state, and that’s an accomplishment in itself.”
The first set of Saturday’s match featured nine tied scores and five lead changes, but the Warriors (32-6) didn’t appear phased to begin the second set, jumping out to an early 5-0 lead as Braves (31-5) had three attack errors, while junior outside hitter Alli Stumler added a service ace for CAI.
But just as it did in the first set, Blackhawk Christian came back after calling an early timeout, scoring four straight points — two on kills and another two on CAI errors — to make it 5-4.
Two big blocks from the Braves shortly thereafter gave them a 7-6 lead, and they wouldn’t look back from there, taking advantage of several Warrior errors to claim the second set, 25-13.
Despite playing on this stage last season, Pauly said he could sense some “nervousness” in the first couple sets from some of his players.
“It happens — it happens,” Pauly said of the nerves. “We squandered that (second set) lead, as well. And that hurts us. I think we ended up with 11 errors in the first set — you’re not going to win very many matches that way.”
But the Warriors weren’t going to go away without a fight.
Led by his two “big hitters,” Stumler and senior middle blocker Sierra Rayzor, Pauly said he was happy to see better passing and setting in a third set victory for CAI. In that third set, Stumler had seven kills and Rayzor had five.
And while the fourth set featured seven tied scores and two early lead changes, Blackhawk Christian regained control of the match midway through the set. Leading 24-20, senior setter Brittany Greubel set up senior outside hitter Casey Brunner, who slammed down a kill on the Warriors’ side of the floor to earn the Braves their first volleyball state championship in school history.
Leading the way for the CAI was Stumler, as the All-American Kentucky commit had a team-best 24 kills to go along with 13 digs and two service aces. Rayzor, who plans to attend Samford, had 15 kills, while sophomore setter Lexi Lester had 21 assists and a team-high 14 digs.
As a team, however, the Warriors had a .179 hitting percentage, compared to a .264 hitting percentage for the Braves.
For Blackhawk Christian, senior outside hitter Olivia Martin had a match-best 27 kills and 15 digs, while Greubel had 49 assists.
“We had a height advantage on these girls,” Pauly said of Blackhawk Christian. “Again, let’s give that team credit, because they dug a lot of balls, they stayed in system quite a bit.”
CAI next season advances to play in Class 2A due to the IHSAA’s Tournament Success Factor, despite being one of the smallest schools in the state at 243 total students. Pauly said the move to 2A is a “new chapter” for his program, but, thanks to the support of the school and the community, the team is “looking forward” to the challenge.
“It means so much to have the support as a coaching staff, but the family support, the school support for these girls, it’s like one big family there,” he said. “So many of these girls — it’s a K-12 school; actually it’s a pre-K through 12 — have grown up there, and they know the teachers … I mean, it is a family.”