Panthers impress en route to region runner up

A+Lady+Panther+prepares+to+set+the+ball.+The+volleyball+team+finished+the+day+with+a+3-1+record+and+ended+in+second+place.

Katie Linkner

A Lady Panther prepares to set the ball. The volleyball team finished the day with a 3-1 record and ended in second place.

John Webb and Ty Odom

Coming into the region tournament as the third seed behind second place Whitewater and first place McIntosh, the Panthers played their first two matches on Oct. 4. The Mill was quickly sent to the losers’ bracket after a loss to Whitewater. Following the loss, the Panthers swept the losers’ bracket, including rival Whitewater, to reach the region championship. Although Starr’s Mill fell to McIntosh and placed second, they secured a home playoff game and avoided a near three-hour trip in the first round.

[T]hey secured a home playoff game and avoided a near three-hour trip in the first round.”

— John Webb and Ty Odom

In the first match against Griffin, Starr’s Mill controlled both games. The Panthers had no trouble scoring, leaving the Bears scrambling for answers. Both games consisted of short runs almost always ending in Starr’s Mill’s favor. The Lady Panthers ended up taking both games with a final score of 25-5 in each game.

“It needed to be a warmup game to prepare for Whitewater,” coach Walt Ellison said. “We were taking care of business.”

When the Lady Panthers went up against the Whitewater Wildcats, they did not dominate like they did against the Lady Bears. Unlike the previous match, this match was extremely close, with each team trading leads throughout. The Panthers managed to keep the game within three points or less, but could not finish the job. The Wildcats succeeded in closing out both games, 25-22 and 25-23.

“We can bounce back,” sophomore Kayla Sloan said. “It’s a back and forth game.”

The Lady Panthers finished the night with the third seed going into the region tournament. Their next match was hosted by McIntosh.

In their first match in the losers’ bracket on Oct. 7, the Panthers took on fourth-seeded Morrow. During the regular season, Starr’s Mill swept Morrow four matches to none and only gave up a combined 36 points through the four games.

A Starr’s Mill player spikes the ball against Fayette High School. The Panthers beat the Tigers handily 2-0.

Through the first 15 points, the Panthers utilized dominant serving to completely control the Mustangs. After the strong start, Starr’s Mill hit a wall on both communication and execution, but the Panthers were the superior team and won the first match 25-13.

In their second match, the Mill controlled the serve again and made quick work of the struggling Mustangs. The match ended 25-6 and Starr’s Mill advanced to play Fayette County in the semifinals of the losers’ bracket.

Similar to the Mustangs, the Tigers were slow in the start of games. In two quick matches, Starr’s Mill beat Fayette County 25-8 and 25-9. Seniors Jessica Tomasello and Gabi Ramkissoon each played an important role on offense and defense in both matches.

“We just went out and tried to execute like we do in practice every day,” Tomasello said. “We came prepared and focused with one goal in mind.”

After a separate 2-1 winners bracket semifinal ended with McIntosh beating Whitewater, Starr’s Mill was set to face the Wildcats for both the chance to play in the championship as well as to earn a home playoff opener rather than an away match.

In the first match of a best of three series, Starr’s Mill started strong with multiple spikes from sophomore Kayla Sloan and some key blocks by sophomore Tessa Laney. After a huge dig from Tomasello, the Panthers capitalized on a long rally and the score was 9-8. The Mill went on a 15 to 6 run after their tenth point, and with a strong showing from their front line, the Panthers finished off the first game with a score of 25-14.

“[Laney] leads us in every major statistical category,” coach Walt Ellison said. “Volleyball is in her blood and it shows.”

The second match followed a Panther trend, as Starr’s Mill led 10-1 just minutes after the first serve. Thanks to some impressive serves as well as improved communication in this match, Starr’s Mill was able to get the score to 15-5. The Wildcats would not go down easily though as they led a comeback that featured their large front line completing some powerful spikes. The second match ended with Starr’s Mill on top again, this time with a score of 25-15.

In the championship, Starr’s Mill, the winner of the losers’ bracket, would face McIntosh, the top team in the winners’ bracket. Unlike all of the other matches in the tournament prior to the championship, this would feature a best of five series.

In the first match, Starr’s Mill was unable to answer McIntosh’s consistent pressure and overwhelming power. Although the Panthers had been on a run, winning their previous six matches, the Chiefs handed Starr’s Mill their first loss of the day 25-20.  

“McIntosh is a fundamentally solid team, so when they make mistakes we know it’s important to capitalize on them,” Tomasello said.

Immediately following game one, the two teams lined up to continue the series. Looking worn out but continuing to fight, the Panthers were hit by a huge Chief run that quickly made the score 9-1. Starr’s Mill gave their best response with a five point run of their own. At the end of the match, McIntosh again topped the Mill with a score of 25-14.

In the final game of the tournament, Starr’s Mill again struggled to keep up with McIntosh. A steady Chief lead and strong defense helped McIntosh finish off the Panthers and claim the region championship.

Although Starr’s Mill fell in the region tournament, the Panthers had to quickly focus and prepare for the following week’s state playoffs.

“Playing teams like Whitewater and McIntosh only better prepares us for the playoffs,” Ellison said. “Those teams are just like the competition we will see in the state tournament.”

In the first round of the state playoffs on Oct. 11, Starr’s Mill hosted Johnson High School. Through a best of five series, the Panthers swept the visiting Knights in three matches with near ten-point leads in all.

Starr’s Mill heads to Ola High School for their next round of state on Oct. 17 at 6 p.m.