FAIRBORN – Hold the rope.
It’s been the go-to saying all year for the Highland volleyball team, introduced by coach Rob Terrill as a metaphor for maintaining trust and unity, even when the going gets rough. ‘When things aren’t going our way, hold the rope,’ he’d say. ‘Pull each other through it.’
GALLERY: Highland Scots vs. Holy Name Green Wave (Div. II state semifinals)
The Highland Scots defeated Parma Heights Holy Name, 3-2, on Thursday in the Div. II state semifinals at Wright State University's Nutter Center. Highland will play top-ranked Middletown Bishop Fenwick in the state title game on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The metaphor was used again Thursday, during the single biggest moment in Highland volleyball history.
After claiming the first two sets against fifth-ranked Parma Heights Holy Name in the Div. II state semifinals, 12th-ranked Highland dropped the next two. The Scots’ air-tight defense began to rip at the seams late in the fourth set, which they lost 25-13.
Heading into the deciding fifth set, Wright State University’s Nutter Center hummed at a pitch close to chaos. On one side, the Holy Name crowd, buzzing after coming back from the dead. On the other, the Highland crew, becoming increasingly tense as the game progressed.
The Scots huddled together before the game’s final stanza. If they won, they’d earn a trip to their first state title game. If they lost, they’d fall one game short, just like they did in 2016.
“Hold the rope,” senior Raina Terry recalled the team saying in the huddle. “No matter where we are, we can pull each other through it.”
Highland held the rope.
After a back-and-forth first few points, the Scots pulled ahead 6-4 on a ferocious Makenna Belcher kill, forcing the Green Wave to call a timeout. Highland took an 11-6 lead on a spike by senior Gena West and used disciplined team defense to maintain a comfortable margin throughout the set.
Down 14-9, Holy Name phenom Samantha Snow lined up a volley from the middle of the court that sailed past the end line. Game over. Highland emerged victorious, 3-2.
“[It’s] a dream come true. I mean, it doesn’t even feel real yet,” Terry said afterwards. “I’m sure when we get there Saturday and we walk back in this place, it’ll feel real. We know what we want.”
Highland’s players rushed the court following the final point, embracing in a tear-filled pile near the center of the court. Holy Name’s players, having won the Div. II state title a year ago, stood shocked on the other side of the net.
“Every single point was very hard-fought,” Holy Name head coach Megan Green said. “We just came up short in the end.”
As Green noted, the Green Wave also came up short on the roster sheet; Holy Name had only two players over 5-foot-10, whereas Highland featured four, including Terry (6-foot-3) and West (6-foot-0). The Scots used this size advantage to win the battle at the net, especially down the stretch.
“All season long we were the underdog team because we’re small. You know, we obviously lack height. It was the same situation last year…” Green said. “It’s hard to compete against a girl who’s as tall as she is, [Terry] for Highland, who just continually hits over our block. I mean, there’s only so much you can do for that.”
Terry led the way with 21 kills for Highland, and the University of Illinois commit shone brightest when her team needed her most. After winning the first set 25-23, the Scots fell behind 23-17 in the second.
With pressure mounting, Terrill didn’t call timeout. Instead, Terry turned it on.
The senior owned Highland’s side of the court for the remainder of the set, using her size and skill to dominate Holy Name offensively and defensively. Terry recorded seven of Highland’s final 11 points, including five kills and two blocks.
After each point, the Highland crowd got louder and Terry got stronger. The Scots went on to win the set, 28-26.
“I just told myself, ‘I gotta do it for my teammates,’” Terry said of the moment.
Holy Name came back to win the third set, 25-20, and the fourth set, 25-13. Snow, Holy Name’s leading scorer in last year’s title game, caught fire and punished Highland at the net. Green said the team switched its defensive style as well, putting Holy Name in better position to handle Terry & Co. The Scots struggled to adjust.
“I felt like at the end of the fourth set, we just started shutting ourselves down a little bit, doubting ourselves,” Terrill said. “We needed to trust each other as teammates, trust each other as people. We just play so hard – this team is so talented.”
Highland regrouped heading into the fifth set and the rest was history. Terrill said the team had to “start back at 0-0” in order to refocus after losing two straight sets.
“We decided to get back to square and just go back to work,” the ninth-year head coach said. “They had taken us out of what we wanted to do in the third and fourth sets, they were just taking away our seams, they were picking balls up. They were just frustrating us that way and then we were trying to do things extra. We were just trying to thread the needle, rather than just playing strong and aggressive like we usually do.”
Highland changed its defensive approach in the fifth set, Terrill added, taking a more reactionary approach than before.
“They really picked up their serving, especially at the end of the third and into that fourth set,” Terrill said. “They were just back there wailing the ball, and we just had to kind of relax and play that… We usually say we want to be aggressive going after it, and we really kind of needed to let it come to us there a little bit.”
Highland also got off to a quick start in the final set, something it had struggled with up to that point. The Scots fell behind early in each of the first four sets on Thursday. Starting strong in the fifth was crucial, Terrill said, especially given the momentum Holy Name had built to that point.
“Getting off in that fifth set in that strong rotation for us and getting a couple points early, that was just huge,” he said. “Our first contact was just a little bit better than what it had been, and that was enough to get us over the hump.”
Terry finished with 21 kills, 11 digs and 3 blocks to lead Highland. Belcher tallied 11 kills and 20 digs, while Kendall Stover recorded 9 kills, 15 digs and 2 blocks. Libero Darcie Walters led the way defensively with 23 digs, and setter Ashlynn Belcher issued 47 assists to her powerful front line.
Highland (25-4) will face top-ranked Middletown Bishop Fenwick (29-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the championship game. It will be Fenwick’s second trip to the state title game, having won it in 2010.
For Terry and the Scots, Thursday’s win was three years in the making. Highland lost in the state semifinals in 2016, when the current seniors were freshmen. Ever since that day, the goal has been to make it back – and this time, advance.
“It was a huge thing to be able to get over that hump this year,” Terry said.
Highland led 1-0 in the 2016 state semifinals before dropping the next three sets. Terry said earlier this week that the bright lights got to her team, and it struggled to respond to adversity late in the game. That was certainly not the case this year.
“Finishing these last couple of sets this game was amazing because three years ago, we couldn’t finish, and we were sent home feeling lost and just hurt,” said West, who started alongside Terry on the 2016 team. “We were able to come back [Thursday] and finish what we started three years ago as freshmen.”
Thursday’s gutsy performance mirrored one Highland executed last Thursday, when it beat John Glenn in five sets to advance to the regional finals. The Scots went on to sweep Dover last Saturday, punching their second state ticket in four years.
“We’re out to win a state championship,” West said, “and we know our entire community of Highland and all of our surrounding schools are right behind us and want this just as bad as us, because they’re family with us and we’re going to take them along for a journey."
Terry, who played for one of the nation’s top club volleyball teams during her high school summers, said she felt more pressure heading into Thursday’s game than ever before.
“I’m with these girls every single day, more than the girls who are on my club team,” Terry said of her Highland teammates. “I love these girls more than anything, so winning this for them is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Now, months of hard work and preparation come down to one game. Highland will play for its first state championship on Saturday afternoon. As far as Terrill is concerned, it doesn’t get much better than this.
“We’ve got one game to win a state championship. Just one,” Terrill said. “Like I said, no regrets, hold the rope for each other, and you’ve gotta believe every single point because there’s 200 other teams that would like to be in the situation we’re in Saturday, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”