LINCOLN – Meridian will be returning to the Class D1 State Championship game on Saturday for the second consecutive year.
The top-seeded Mustangs fought off a feisty Blue Hill team in the semifinals Friday in five sets 25-22, 23-25, 25-17, 23-25, 15-11 at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln.
For their efforts, Meridian will get another shot at second-seeded and top-ranked Johnson-Brock, the team who has dealt the Mustangs their only two losses on the season. It’s also a rematch of last year’s Class D1 State Championship match. Johnson-Brock came out on top in four sets last year to claim the title.
Meridian had swept Blue Hill earlier in the season, but they were all close sets. Meridian coach Bob VanWesten said he wasn’t surprised that his team was pushed to the brink by Blue Valley.
“We haven’t played very many five-set matches,” VanWesten said. “We had to play five sets in subdistricts and that was probably good for us. We just kept battling and (Blue Hill) did a great job of picking up a lot of stuff and coming back at us. We knew they would because we played them before, but it comes down to battling and we were able to battle and come out on top.”
Halle Pribyl pounded home 28 kills for Meridian while Rylee Pieper added 22 kills.
“(Blue Hills) was setting up a double block on us, so that made it tough,” VanWesten said. “Early on we had some trouble getting it by them, but when we changed the tempo a bit and went down the line more, we were able to score on them.”
VanWesten said Pribyl is a true competitor who will do whatever it takes to win.
“She’s going to run through a wall for you,” VanWesten said. “And we needed her, because the way they were playing, we had to find ways to get kills instead of going back and forth. And she found a way.”
Meridian came out on fire early against Blue Hill on Friday. They motored out to a 7-3 lead in the first set and extended that lead to 11-5, forcing a timeout.
Meridian scored three of the next four points to extend the lead to 15-6, but Blue Hill wouldn’t go down easy. With the score 23-15, they would score seven of the next eight points to make it 24-22. A kill by Lauren DeLord put the set away, though, giving the Mustangs a 1-0 lead in the match.
The second set was tightly contested the entire way, but Meridian was able to take a 23-20 advantage late. The resilient Blue Hill team stormed back, though, and scored the next five points to win the set 25-23 and even that match at 1-1.
In the third set, the two teams battled to a 13-13 tie, but seven straight points by Meridian made it 20-13. Blue Hill got back to within four at 20-16, but never closer as the Mustangs went on to win 25-17 and take a 2-1 lead in the match.
The teams battled to a 15-15 tie midway through the fourth set, but this time it was Blue Hill who was able to build a 19-15 cushion. Meridian battled back to tie it at 21-21, but Blue Hill finished the set on a 4-2 run to win 25-23, forcing a fifth and decisive set.
Meridian motored out to a 9-5 lead early, forcing a Blue Hill time out. Blue Hill narrowed the lead to 9-7, but the Mustangs dominated the rest of the set, eventually winning 15-11 to claim the match 3-2.
Blue Hill was a difficult team for Meridian to put away late in sets. VanWesten said their balance created problems for his team.
“They can go to several different hitters and you have to keep finding ways to find a hole against them,” VanWesten said. “They make you work – and we did. Our serving is what did it for us. We did a better job getting them out of system with our serving.”
Hailey Schafer had seven kills while Josiee Sobotka had five kills, Lauren DeLord had four kills and Erin Johnson had two kills. Johnson dished out 55 assists.
Meridian got two ace serves each from Johnson, Schafer, Pribyl, Jaicee Sobotka and Josiee Sobotka. Johnson had 45 digs, Jaicee sobotka had 41 digs and Pribyl had 37 digs.
The win sets up the championship match that most were expecting. Meridian was swept by Johnson-Brock in the MUDECAS Championship match 2-0 and then was swept again in the district final last week 3-0. The match is slated to 11 a.m. Saturday at the Bob Devaney Sports Center.
“We have to play better early in the games,” VanWesten said. “Both games, we got down early and then we’d play better, but we were too far down. To come back on them – you’re not going to come back from very far. We need to stay with them early in the game and see what happens. We haven’t shown them anywhere close to our best, so hopefully we’ll have that tomorrow.”