SPARTA – The last time Raina Terry played at Wright State University’s Nutter Center, she left heartbroken.
It didn’t start that way. Her Highland Scots felt confident after winning the first set against Tuscarawas Valley in the 2016 Div. III state volleyball semifinals, 25-19. But then the bright lights of the cavernous Nutter Center – a venue that seats 10,400 – got to the freshman and her teammates.
They realized they were playing for a trip to the state title game, and they crumbled. The pressure became too much. Tuscarawas Valley came back to win the next three sets, sending Highland home in defeat.
Now a senior, Terry still vividly remembers her first trip to state.
“I just remember it being crazy intimidating. Like, it’s a huge facility,” said Terry, who started and led the team with 18 kills that day. “It was just crazy with the lights being directly on you and everyone surrounding, but it was a great atmosphere to play in.”
Fortunately for Terry, it wouldn't be her last shot. After sweeping Dover on Saturday, the Scots are heading back to the Nutter Center this weekend.
“It’s crazy. I mean, as seniors, we always wanted to go back,” Terry said Tuesday. “It’s like a dream come true that we get to go back.”
Highland will face Parma Heights Holy Name, last year’s Div. II state champion, in the state semifinals on Thursday at 4 p.m. The other semifinal matchup, Middletown Bishop Fenwick vs. Gates Mills Gilmour Academy, will begin at 6 p.m. Winners from both games will meet in the state final on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The Scots (24-4) will head to Dayton this weekend ranked 12th in the state in Div. II. Holy Name (25-2) is ranked fifth, Fenwick (28-1) is ranked first, and Gilmour Academy (21-6) is unranked.
After falling in the district title game the last two seasons, Highland was able to break through and win its region this year. The Scots, winners of seven straight conference titles, knocked out local rival Utica, 3-1, in the district championship game. They proceeded to beat John Glenn in the regional semis, 3-2, before having their way with Dover.
“We just came out ready to play. We played our hardest,” Terry said of the 3-0 regional final win. “We knew what we wanted, so I don’t think we were ever going to let up.”
Highland coach Rob Terrill said the team has talked all year about making it back to state. Two seniors – Terry and Gena West – started on the 2016 team as freshmen, and Darcie Walters came off the bench. This season has been their final shot at redemption.
“They wanted to make sure we pushed through this year to get there,” Terrill said. “All five of our seniors are good leaders, and that sure helps because they’ve all got certain roles on the team, and they fill those roles and are team-oriented.”
In his ninth year as Highland’s head coach, Terrill has been a part of three district title teams. He’s led the program to unprecedented success; the Scots have won 91 percent of their games since 2013, compiling an eye-opening 173-17 record.
Still, Terrill said this year’s team is “probably the [best] offensive team we’ve ever had.” The Scots have recorded over 1,200 kills and 300 aces already this season, which Terrill said makes Highland one of the top 20 or 30 offensive teams in state history.
“And we still have one, maybe two games left to go,” he said with a grin.
Terry, a University of Illinois commit, has led the way with 455 kills at the outside hitter position. Sophomore Kendall Stover, a right-side hitter with a 27-inch vertical, has recorded 286 kills this season, while junior Makenna Belcher, a three-year starter, has tallied 220. West, a rangy middle hitter, has generated 104.
But the engine to Highland’s well-oiled offensive machine is sophomore setter Ashlynn Belcher, who leads the team with 514 assists this season. The key, Belcher said, has been spreading the ball around.
“I know most of the teams that we play know that Raina’s definitely one of our best hitters, and they’re always keeping their eyes on her," Belcher said. "So I really try and mix it up because they’re not ready for other hitters to get the ball."
After she gets the rest of the cast involved, Belcher will go back to Terry. At that point, she has the defense on its heels.
“Then they won’t be ready for her,” Belcher explained. “It’s really just mixing it up and doing things that aren’t expected.”
Much of the Scots’ postseason success can also be attributed to their brutal regular season schedule. Highland faced only Div. I teams in non-conference play this year, and three of its four losses came on one weekend, when the Scots played in the Columbus Invitational Tournament alongside St. Joseph Academy, Mount Notre Dame (No. 2 in state), Mason, and Olentangy Orange (No. 8 in state).
The Scots finished 1-3 that weekend, but they held their own. Terrill, who helped organize the tournament years ago, believes the experience has done wonders for the team's confidence this postseason.
“We feel like we can play with anybody,” he said.
Highland features a rare mix of talent, with seniors starting alongside juniors and sophomores. Terry said the goal this year was to “get rid of seniority,” so the team could focus on winning instead of class rank.
“The biggest thing is just playing as a team,” the senior said. “I think in previous years, we’ve had a lot of selfishness on our team, and there’s been a lot of divides between classes, like seniors and upperclassmen and underclassmen. But this year, we totally got rid of seniority. It doesn’t exist for us, and I think that’s helped us a lot. We’re a lot closer this year than we have been in past years.”
Belcher said this mentality has helped her and fellow underclassmen step up and perform when needed.
“They set really good examples for us younger girls,” Belcher said of the senior class. “They’re not afraid to hold us accountable when we make mistakes, but they do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable, so you’re not afraid to call them out on stuff, just like they call you out on stuff… They just create a really good environment for everyone, and they make everything super comfortable and family-like.”
Terry said her goal this weekend will be to keep things comfortable for the team’s underclassmen, who have not played on the state stage before. If Highland focuses on “playing as a team,” she said, everything else will take care of itself.
“It’s intimidating," she said, "so we have to not let the pressure get to us and just go out there and play our game."
Holy Name won state last year by conquering Bishop Hartley in a five-set thriller. Terrill believes the Green Wave are good again this season, but also beatable.
“I think we’ve got a great shot with Holy Name. I think we can beat them,” Terrill said. “They’re kind of a similar team to us. They have two outsides and a right side, they mix in their middles.
"They’ve lost quite a bit from last year’s state championship team, so I think we can hang with them. Obviously, I think we can beat them and then that moves us on. But obviously you’ve gotta take care of step one to get to step two.”
If the Scots win Thursday, they'll advance to the state title game for the first time in school history. To get there, however, Terrill said the team will need to stay even-keel, something it's mastered over the last few years.
“It’s been a great group of girls, they work really hard,” Terrill said. “We want big things, so we’ll just keep working at it.”