Times Sports Editor
The Clay City Eels are in some uncharted waters this week as the volleyball team prepares for the Class A Loogootee Semi-state on Saturday. However, that isn't going to stop the players, fans and head coach Lu Anne Anderson from enjoying the trip.
"I'll tell you what, I've never gotten so many emails and congratulations. It's been great. The girls have been walking around school on cloud nine with everyone telling them, 'Great job and good game,'" Anderson said. "They are so excited and this is a great thing for Clay City being in the semi-state for volleyball. Here we are, one of the final eight teams playing."
The Eels are slated to take on Trinity Lutheran, a 30-5 program that is ranked No. 6. The match is the second of the afternoon as the host Lions of Loogootee (30-5) take on Hauser (28-8) in the opener at 11 a.m.
There aren't any slouches at this stage of the IHSAA postseason as the Lions bring a No. 4 ranking and Hauser is ranked No. 10 in the coaches' poll. Playing a bit of an underdog role isn't new for a Clay City team that has won its first sectional and regional titles this season.
Trinity Lutheran captured its regional title against Borden in five games, rallying back from a 2-1 set deficit to score the championship. The Cougars were in Clay City's shoes last season, winning its first sectional and regional before falling to Barr-Reeve in the semi-state opener.
At this stage of the postseason, the opponents aren't really familiar, but Anderson noted that she's had time to see what makes the Cougars successful.
"The only place we've seen (Trinity Lutheran) is on tape, which can be a good thing and can be a bad thing," Anderson said. "I'd prefer to see teams in person, but when you advance far in the state tournament, if they are not on your schedule or aren't a team close to you, then it's hard to do.
Trinity Lutheran is led by a pair of six-foot hitters in junior Sarah Stuckwisch and senior Emma Franke.
Stuckwisch leads the team in kills with 293 kills and 119 blocks while Franke adds 193 kills and 107 blocks. Sarah Onken has produced another 100 kills this season. However, another potent weapon might be out of the lineup as senior KatieJo Curry injured a knee in regional play and missed the final two games. Curry is one of the Cougars' best defenders and passers as she has 166 digs and 116 kills.
The Cougars countered with freshman Mallory Barker, who performed admirably in the clutch. The offense is run by senior Samantha Stuckwisch, who has produced 804 assists and 136 digs. Junior Kyra Klosterman leads the defense with 321 digs.
Despite the six-foot duo at the net, Anderson believes her Eels will be find matching up with the Cougars.
"Size doesn't mean anything as long as our players can jump," Anderson said. "Our players have got to get set and jump and that's what we're going to work on (Thursday). (Trinity Lutheran) runs a quick set offense that we'll have to adjust to. Not a lot of team's we face this year run that, but we've seen some that have. Guerin Catholic runs a quick set offense and so does Cascade and we saw them the last part of the season. We adjusted to it well, but we'll work on it in practice."
Clay City's varied offense has been led by seniors Brielle Drelick (267 kills), Asie Jeffers (163 kills) and Meeghan Riggs (84 kills) along with junior Halli Brewer (157 kills). Freshman setter Emmie Kittle has passed out 610 assists this season. The defense has been balanced as libero Callie Dayhuff has produced a team-high 335 digs. Drelick has 196, Riggs has 182, Chloe Kittle adds 104 and Emmie Kittle (100) contributes to the team's balance.
"I think it has helped out tremendously," Anderson said of playing a healthy schedule of larger schools. "We had some losses, but not all of those losses should have been losses. We haven't been beaten by a 1A school so far and that's a positive in our schedule. I like playing schools of a higher class because they only make us better."
Clay City has had the benefit of a raucous home crowd during the sectional and regional contests and Saturday promises to provide another massive crowd in the Jack Butcher Arena, named after the state's all-time leader in boys' basketball wins. The arena seats approximately 4,000, but a reported 2,300 fans showed up for a sectional contest between Loogootee and Barr-Reeve. With fans from four teams on hand, tickets will be at a premium. Clay City will have a fan bus available, which costs $5 and leaves at 9 a.m. from the school parking lot.
"The fan base has been fantastic. I know we'll have a great traveling group that goes to Loogootee to support us," Anderson said. "But I know there will be a lot of fans from Loogootee, I expect a lot of fans from Hauser and from Trinity Lutheran. I think it will be a great atmosphere for our girls to play in. I think it's going to be exciting."