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Local football is now over but volleyball going strong

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From the left, New Castle’s Bailey Cox digs ups a ball hit by Center Grove as teammates Zoe Conway, Addie Bunner, and Mabrey Shaffmaster watch during last Saturday’s Class 4A southern semi-state championship match in the Orange Pit at Columbus East High School. One unsung reason No. 1 New Castle defeated No. 5 Center Grove in four sets is defense, as this Trojan quartet produced 39 of New Castle’s 52 digs in the match.
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The Class 4A No. 1 New Castle High School volleyball team huddles on the court in the Orange Pit at Columbus East High School before facing No. 5 Center Grove Saturday afternoon in the 4A southern semi-state championship match. New Castle defeated Center Grove in four sets and will play Hamilton Southeastern for the Class 4A state championship this coming Saturday at 5 p.m. at Ball State’s Worthen Arena in Muncie.

By DAVID RISLEY - drisley@thecouriertimes.com

I don’t think I’m a jinx to our local high school football teams, and I know I’m not one when it comes to volleyball.

The reason I make this statement is that for the fifth autumn in a row since I became sports editor of this newspaper in May 2015, no local high school football team will win a sectional championship.

Local teams have come close in recent seasons, as Hagerstown played for three straight Class A sectional titles in championship games from 2016-18, but Indianapolis Lutheran always got in the way of winning one.

Shenandoah played two years in a row (2017-18) for a sectional championship in Class 2A, but was nipped both times by Lapel in the title game.

Of course, I’m smart enough to know I can’t control what happens down on the football field, whether it’s by making predictions of the outcomes of games, being there (or not) at a certain game, and writing the stories after the games have been played.

I guess I could fire up a team with some statement or comment that I type, but that goes only so far in how a game plays out. I want all of our local teams to win and feel kind of sad when they bow out of a tournament with a loss. But the sun comes up the next day (usually) and there’s always next year for all but the seniors.

I also can’t take credit for the success of our local volleyball teams. Since I became sports editor, Shenandoah won three straight volleyball sectional titles (2015-17 and it should have had a fourth in 2018), Hagerstown has won four straight sectional championships (2016-19), Blue River Valley has won back-to-back sectional titles (2018-19), and New Castle has won three straight sectional, regional, and semi-state championships and will play for its third consecutive state championship this Saturday.

By coincidence, I just happened to be sports editor when all this tremendous volleyball success has taken place locally. Perhaps something I typed and placed in the paper inspired one of these teams, or being there to cover them in person ignited them to play better and win. But I can’t prove that. 

Although I got around and saw all six area volleyball teams a few times this season, I followed New Castle the most and the Trojans are a fun team to cover. Winning teams always are.

I’ll admit, I had some reservations after New Castle won two Class 3A volleyball state championships in a row and had to move up to Class 4A the next two years under the IHSAA’s tournament success factor. I had even more doubts when I saw the Trojans stuck in the same Sectional 9 as Yorktown, the defending 4A state champion.

Yorktown actually has a smaller enrollment than New Castle and also is still playing up a class under the tournament success factor.

But this Trojan team is so talented and doesn’t have a weakness. Its biggest opponent is itself in most matches, as it sometimes struggles with serving and unforced errors that give its opponents points.

I made the trip down to Columbus East High School last Saturday for the 4A southern semi-state championship match between New Castle and Center Grove. I don’t have GPS and probably wouldn’t use it anyway as I like to locate my destination on a map and plan the route myself.

The most direct way to get to Columbus East HS is to take Ind. 3 to Greensburg where it connects with Ind. 46, and then take Ind. 46 into Columbus. So that’s what I did, and, by golly, the high school was right off Ind. 46 on Marr Road just as the map pinpointed.

I enjoyed the drive on good roads and saw better scenery than I would have had I taken the longer interstate route to Columbus.

I got there in time to see some of the Class 2A southern semi-state championship match between Heritage Christian and Barr-Reeve. Heritage Christian is the team that knocked out a very good Hagerstown squad in the regional semifinals.

The Eagles have a rather tall and athletic team, and the scary thing for other teams in Regional 11 next year is that Heritage Christian has only one senior on this year’s team. The Eagles took care of the Vikings in three relatively close sets and will play Wapahani Saturday at Worthen Arena for the Class 2A state title.

And what about the Mid-Eastern Conference? The MEC has not one, but two, of its volleyball teams playing for state championships this Saturday. Cowan meets Trinity Lutheran in Class A and Wapahani plays Heritage Christian in 2A.

Wapahani is a classic example of what I thought New Castle might face this season. The Raiders won back-to-back Class 2A state championships and then were forced to move up to 3A the next two seasons under the IHSAA’s tournament success factor.

Wapahani lost in the sectional semifinals to larger schools New Castle and Delta the next two seasons and dropped back down to Class 2A. And here it is playing for a 2A state title again.

But back to New Castle. I was pretty confident that New Castle could defeat Center Grove in this battle of Trojans because NC had defeated CG twice earlier in the season, But Center Grove has at least three times the enrollment of New Castle, so I knew it had talent and would be prepared.

New Castle started out in the first set with a 6-1 lead, making Center Grove look bad in the process, and then extended the advantage to 12-6. I was thinking to myself, “We’ve got this.”

But then Center Grove sophomore hitter Katie Egenolf began going to work, recorded three straight kills, and CG was back into the set. Center Grove pulled even, went ahead, and took set one on a New Castle mistake.

Time and again, Egenolf came through for Center Grove, finding the open spot on the court for a kill. It was a relief to me (and probably other New Castle fans) when Egenolf sat down for brief spells during Center Grove’s rotations.

New Castle junior Mabrey Shaffmaster is the best high school power hitter I have seen this season, but Egenolf came close to being equal with her on Saturday. Egenolf made New Castle sweat a bit and finished with 28 kills in the match.

But we have Mabrey Shaffmaster, who finished with 35 kills of her own as New Castle took the next three sets and the match. A number of other New Castle girls came up with big plays to help the cause.

Folks, we have something rare going on here: our Trojan volleyball team playing for its third-straight state championship. That’s never happened here before in any sport. We’re not like Carmel, where its girls swimming team wins the state championship every year going back to when Noah built the Ark.

Support for the New Castle volleyball team has been good this season, and I thought a nice-sized crowd from New Castle made the 140-mile round trip to Columbus Saturday to cheer the team on.

But think of what size crowd this would have been had it been the New Castle boys basketball team going for its third-straight state title. The crowd would be immense.

These volleyball girls compose a special team that won’t be here forever and deserve the same amount of support. I know Saturday’s Class 4A state championship match against Hamilton Southeastern at 5 p.m. in BSU’s Worthen Arena will be televised live by Fox Sports Indiana (Comcast channel 53).

But let’s fill Worthen Arena with New Castle fans early Saturday evening to cheer these girls on. They deserve nothing less than that.

David Risley is sports editor at The Courier-Times and may even purchase a “three-peat” T-shirt after New Castle wins the state title Saturday.