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Trojans defeat HSE for third straight VB state championship

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Hamilton Southeastern's Grace Hunter (1) tries to push a kill past the block attempt of New Castle's Melani Shaffmaster (17) and Laila Smith (8) as the Royals' Abby Weber (10) watches during Saturday night's Class 4A volleyball state championship match in Ball State's Worthen Arena. The No. 1 Trojans defeated No. 3 HSE in four sets for the title.
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Hamilton Southeastern's Maddie Cole (34) attempts to pound a kill past the defense of New Castle's Nicole Wilkinson (14) and Bailey Cox (16) during Saturday night's Class 4A volleyball state championship match in Ball State's Worthen Arena. The No. 1 Trojans defeated the No. 3 Royals in four sets to claim the title.
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Players on the Class 4A No. 1 New Castle High School volleyball team cheer as teammate Laila Smith (8) steps up to receive her state championship medal from members of the IHSAA executive board after the Trojans defeated Hamilton Southeastern in four sets to win the Class 4A state title Saturday night in Ball State's Worthen Arena.
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New Castle's Mabrey Shaffmaster (9) rises for a kill attempt against Hamilton Southeastern off a set by her sister Melani (17) as the Trojans' Bailey Cox (16) watches during Saturday night's Class 4A volleyball state championship match in Ball State's Worthen Arena. Mabrey ended the season as the state's leader in kills as No. 1 New Castle defeated the No. 3 Royals in four sets for the title and a "three-peat."
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New Castle’s All-American player Melani Shaffmaster (17) tips the ball over Hamilton Southeastern’s Taylor Lauri (8) for a point as the Trojans’ Nicole Wilkinson (14) and the Royals’ Olivia Phillips (25) watch during Saturday night’s Class 4A volleyball state championship match in Ball State’s Worthen Arena. No. 1 New Castle defeated No. 3 HSE in four sets for the title.

By DAVID RISLEY - drisley@thecouriertimes.com

MUNCIE - When the New Castle High School volleyball team was forced to move up to Class 4A for the 2019 season after winning back-to-back state championships in Class 3A, some folks doubted the Trojans would have the same success at the higher classification.

Class 4A No. 1 New Castle squashed those doubts, maneuvering through the 2019 season with a just a single setback and capped a 35-1 season with a four-set 23-25, 25-15, 25-23, 25-18 victory over No. 3 Hamilton Southeastern Saturday night in Ball State's Worthen Arena to win the 4A state championship for a "three-peat."

It was the Trojans' fourth state title in volleyball, with Class 3A championships in 2017 and 2018 and 4A titles in 2007 and this year.

The Royals closed out a fine 29-5 season with the state runner-up trophy.

New Castle had defeated HSE 3-0 in the Fieldhouse back on Aug. 21. But the Royals were much-improved since then and forced the Trojans to sweat a bit in the state championship match.

"Hamilton Southeastern played really, really well," New Castle Coach Sarah Roush said afterward, "and I didn't think we came out as strongly as we would have liked. But we overcame that initial adversity and started playing better. We were down multiple times in the match but managed to win."

The Class 4A state championship match had first serve at 7:14 p.m., more than two hours after its originally-projected starting time of 5 p.m. This primarily was due to the fact that the Class A match between Cowan and Trinity Lutheran to open the day went five sets and the 3A match between Bellmont and Brownstown Central went four, with one of those sets going 34-32 in favor of the eventual 3A state champion Braves.

"The wait to play was super frustrating," New Castle senior Zoe Conway said during the post-game celebration. "We had practice for an hour before and were ready to play at five. Coach Roush said we could go out and watch the match taking place, stay in the locker room, listen to music, whatever, as long as we did it as a team. All we wanted was to get out on the floor and play. But we won, so it worked out well in the end."

The Trojans got a taste of what was to come in the first set of the 4A match as the first point went to the Royals on a kill by senior Abby Weber. A tip by New Castle junior Nicole Wilkinson evened things at 1-1 and it was nip-and-tuck from there.

The set was tied at 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9. Another Weber kill and balls hit wide and long by the Trojans enabled HSE to open a 12-9 advantage.

From there, a Wilkinson point, a pair of kills by Mabrey Shaffmaster, a Laila Smith block, and a Melani Shaffmaster service ace enabled New Castle to score five of the next seven points and forge a 14-all tie.

A Maddie Cole kill gave the Royals a 15-14 lead but a Smith kill knotted things up again at 15-15. After the two teams exchanged the next four points to make the score 17-17, kills by Mabrey Shaffmaster and Wilkinson at the net staked the Trojans to a 19-17 advantage and prompted a HSE timeout.

After the brief break, the Royals got bookend kills from Weber and Grace Hunter, sandwiched around two New Castle hitting errors that were offset only by a Mabrey Shaffmaster kill, giving HSE a 21-20 lead and prompting a Trojan timeout. 

A Delaney Garner block when play resumed upped the Royal advantage to 22-20. Kills by Wilkinson and Smith helped New Castle to deadlock the set again at 23-23.

But the Trojans served the ball into the net and Cole pounded down another kill to give set one to HSE after 25 minutes.

Being down a set to a team it had defeated earlier in the season was nothing new for New Castle as the same thing happened in the semi-state against Center Grove the previous Saturday. The Trojans just went back to work to even the match.

"We were a little nervous at first because Mabrey wasn't getting the number of kills she usually gets," Smith said after the match. "They (Royals) were better than when we first played them. After we lost the first set, we compared it to the Center Grove match, decided to play harder, came back out and did that to get the win. Winning three state state championships is crazy and I'm really excited."

The Royals might have been basking in the glow of taking a set from the state's No. 1 team as they never led in the second set. A ball hit wide by HSE and a Mabrey Shaffmaster kill gave New Castle an early 2-0 advantage.

The Trojans got kills from Mabrey Shaffmaster and Smith, but the Royals tallied points on a Hunter kill and two New Castle miscues to pull to within 4-3. That was as close as HSE would get as a Melani Shaffmaster tip and back-to-back Smith kills opened up a 7-3 Trojan advantage.

After a Cole kill and Olivia Phillips tip pulled the Royals to within 7-5, two Bailey Cox kills, a Melani Shaffmaster point, and four balls hit long or wide by HSE boosted the New Castle lead to 14-5. HSE had called two timeouts within that stretch to try to reverse the momentum to no avail.

A Cole kill finally ended that string of Trojan points and the Royals eventually did chop the New Castle advantage to 15-11. But a HSE serve into the net and net violation, sandwiched around a Wilkinson point, gave the Trojans an 18-11 lead.

An Addie Bunner kill a little later extended the New Castle advantage to nine points at 23-14. Garner notched a kill, but back-to-back Smith kills gave the Trojans set two after 22 minutes and tied the match at a set apiece.

"They (Royals) were really keying on Mabrey," Roush explained, "but we adjusted and started going to our middle hitters more, which is something I don't think they expected. Laila and Nicole had really nice matches from the middle and all of our girls made plays to help us win."

Hamilton Southeastern jumped out to a 6-2 advantage in the pivotal third set as two kills by Hunter and one by Garner plus three New Castle hitting miscues were offset by only kills by Wilkinson and Mabrey Shaffmaster. 

But the Trojans began clawing back into contention in the set, and a trio of kills and a block by Melani Shaffmaster and a block and kill by Smith enabled New Castle to score six of the next eight points to draw even at 8-8.

"This is crazy," Melani Shaffmaster said afterward, "and an amazing way to end my high school career. I couldn't ask for anything more. We were down after the first set, but realized the reason was we had too many errors. We focused hard on coming out for the rest of the match and playing better. I'm so proud of my teammates. When we made errors, we forgot about them and moved on to the next point."

The set was tied at 9 and 10, and a Garner kill and Cole point put the Royals ahead 12-10. Two kills and a block by Mabrey Shaffmaster were offset by a Trojan hitting mistake and the set was tied again at 13-all.

A ball hit wide by New Castle and a Hunter tip put HSE up 15-13 but two Royal hitting errors deadlocked it again at 15-15. Kills by Cole and Weber plus a Trojan carry violation were countered by only a Melani Shaffmaster kill and HSE was up by two points again at 18-16.

The Royals obliged with a net violation and another miscue to tie it up again at 18-all. A double-hit violation on New Castle plus kills by Phillips and Weber were offset by only a Cox kill and HSE led 21-19. Wilkinson recorded a kill but the Trojans served the ball into the net, and the Royals still had a two-point lead at 22-20.

Another Wilkinson kill followed by a New Castle error left the Trojans behind 23-21 and prompted a New Castle timeout.

HSE didn't score again after the brief break as consecutive kills by Mabrey Shaffmaster, Melani Shaffmaster, Smith, and Melani again gave New Castle set three after 26 minutes and a 2-1 lead in the match.

"I got a lot of kills against them (Royals) early in the season," Mabrey Shaffmaster said afterward during the post-game celebration, "and I think they watched a lot of film and came out prepared to stop me. I didn't have my best match of the season, and I'm very glad I had my teammates behind me to pick up the slack. I tried to focus on other things I could do to help us win. I was kind of wearing down toward the end of the season and told Laila and Nicole that now was their time. They and the rest of the team did an outstanding job today to get us this state championship."

The Trojans fell behind again in the fourth set, this time 5-2 after a Phillips point, two Garner kills, and long and wide hits of the ball by New Castle were answered by only two Mabrey Shaffmaster kills.

But the Trojans clawed back to tie the set at 7-all after a pair of Smith kills, one apiece by Mabrey and Melani Shaffmaster, and a ball hit wide by the Royals. HSE got kills from Cole and Weber plus a New Castle net violation that was offset only by another Smith kill for a 10-8 advantage.

The Trojans then gained the upper hand in the set. A Wilkinson kill, consecutive balls hit wide by the Royals, and a Mabrey Shaffmaster kill gave New Castle the lead for good at 12-10. Weber and Wilkinson exchanged kills and the Trojans had a 13-11 lead at the TV timeout.

When play resumed, a ball hit long by HSE and a Cox service ace boosted the New Castle lead to 15-11 and prompted a Royals timeout. After the brief break, kills by Mabrey Shaffmaster and Wilkinson hiked the Trojan advantage to 17-11.

New Castle's lead in the set never fell below four points the rest of the way, the final time at 20-16 after a ball hit wide by the Trojans. Ahead 23-18, another Wilkinson kill and service ace by Cox ended set four after 24 minutes, giving New Castle the 3-1 win and state championship.

"Our girls worked really hard to win this state championship and I'm really proud of them." Roush added.

Junior Samantha Ward, also a gymnast who has made it to the state finals in that sport her first two years of high school and was on last year's Class 3A state championship team, was delighted she got to play a bigger role in the volleyball team's success this year.

"This is just amazing and I'm so happy," Ward said afterward. "Even when we lost the first set, we knew we could come back and win because we had done it before. I've loved playing with this team this year and am kind of sad the season's over. We'll come back and try to do it again next year."

No official individual parameters of the match were available by Monday's press deadline. But from the numbers posted on the scoreboard, Mabrey Shaffmaster and Smith recorded 20 kills apiece, Melani Shaffmaster had 12, and Wilkinson was close to or above double digits in the category, as well.

If those numbers are correct, Mabrey Shaffmaster, with 670 kills, ended as the state's leader in that category for the second straight year.

"We made 11 errors the first set," Conway added, "so we knew if we cut down on those and played our game, we'd be all right. We didn't have to be concerned about what they (Royals) were doing as long as we focused on ourselves. I told Melani late in the fourth set we're going to do this, and I'm glad we did because I didn't want to play a fifth set. Winning a third straight championship on this floor is no better way is end my high school career, and it will be my home floor next year because I'm going to play volleyball for Ball State. The support from New Castle fans has been amazing, and I hope they'll come up and see me play next year."