Nies’ girls finish first:
Pioneer beats Loogootee in 4, wins first state volleyball title in school history
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
MUNCIE –- Undeterred by a relentless digging on the other side of the net from their opponent and showing a resilience that became their trademark through their tournament run, the Pioneer volleyball team broke through after years of success to beat Loogootee in four sets and win its first volleyball state championship in school history at Worthen Arena on the Ball State University campus Saturday.
The No. 3 Lady Panthers beat No. 2 Loogootee 25-23, 27-29, 27-25, 25-22 for the Class 1A title.
Hailey Cripe had the final kill that ticked off the fingertips of a Loogootee defender before dropping beyond the service line. Players mobbed each other in a dog pile near the net in euphoria to celebrate.
Since 2006, Pioneer has won 15 sectionals, eight regionals and two semistate titles. Now they have a state title to go along with it.
“I’m just so proud of the girls,” an emotional Pioneer coach Rod Nies said. “We dropped that second set, and they’re a really good team. Don’t get me wrong. But we let them get back in that set and take that set. So, I’m out of words. I’m just so happy and so happy for the girls. They played so well. And we finally got it done.”
“It feels amazing,” senior setter Olivia Brooke said. “Best feeling I’ve had in awhile.”
Cripe is a veteran of the big stage. She also played in the Class 1A softball state championship games in 2018 and 2019, the 2018 volleyball state championship match and the 2020 girls basketball state title game.
“I was just so happy,” Cripe said. “So happy. This is now my fifth appearance at state and only my second win. And the first year, I was in eighth grade, and I was just as manager, so to actually experience it with my team, it’s incredible.”
Cripe led Pioneer with 22 kills and added 16 serves received. Madison Blickenstaff had had 13 kills, 39 serves received and 14 digs. Mackenzie Walker had eight kills, 21 digs and 14 serves received. Brooke had 38 assists and 21 digs.
The match lasted a grueling two hours and 10 minutes.
“It feels amazing,” Walker said. “We haven’t won state since our freshman year in softball, and just coming out after three runner-ups, we knew what we wanted and we did it.”
Pioneer went on a 10-2 run in Game 4 to take an 18-10 lead. They were still leading 20-12 when Loogootee went on a 9-3 run capped off by an Abbey Furhman kill and a Makenzie VanHoy kill to get the Lady Lions within 23-21.
Pioneer coach Rod Nies called timeout.
Loogootee was called for a line violation to make it 24-21 and get Pioneer to match point. A Makenzie VanHoy kill, her 24th of the match in the back left corner kept the match alive before Cripe ended it.
Pioneer’s run to the state title wasn’t easy. They dropped the first set against Southwood in their sectional quarterfinal before winning in four. They needed five sets to beat No. 5 Northfield in the sectional final. They needed a comeback from an 0-2 deficit to win in five against Lakewood Park in the regional semifinal. They also needed to beat defending state champ Cowan in the semistate.
“I think we had the hardest journey to get here,” Brooke said. “Sectional, regional, semistate, we had a top-ranked team that we had to go past. And I think this team, we’ve all been here before. We came here as sophomores, and I think we’re all mentally tough because we’re not folding under the pressure. We’re not nervous. We’re just playing our game out there.”
Pioneer jumped out to a 4-1 lead in Game 1. Loogootee went on a 7-0 run to go up 10-6. Two Cripe kills and a Walker kill down the line highlighted a 5-0 Pioneer run that put the Lady Panthers back ahead 18-16.
Cripe went wide left on a kill try to help Loogootee get back even at 20-20. But a Cripe crosscourt kill, a Brooke stuff block, a Loogootee kill error off the antenna and a Cripe kill that brushed off the net made it 24-20. Loogootee won three straight points before Cripe ended the game with a kill.
Game 2 was an epic. A Cripe kill off the tip gave Pioneer three set points at 24-21. Brooke was called for a double-hit. Then Pioneer was called for four hits. Then Pioneer was called for a net violation to make it 24-24.
Loogootee’s Asia Crim missed to give Pioneer a fourth set point, but Kyle VanHoy erased with a kill. Loogootee’s Jocelyn Strange planted a serve into the net, but Kylie VanHoy came up with another kill. A Blickenstaff kill gave Pioneer a sixth set point, but Makenzie VanHoy got back-to-back kills and a tip to somehow pull out the game.
Game 3 was also tight and intense. Cripe missed a kill to give Loogotee a 23-22 lead, but Cripe atoned on the next point for 23-23. Loogootee was called for four hits to give Pioneer a set point, but Loogootee’s Jaelyn Walker erased it with a two-hand tip.
Kylie VanHoy missed on a kill, but Blickenstaff sprayed a free ball wide to make it 25-25. Loogootee then hit the antenna on a kill, and Walker went down the line for a kill to give Pioneer a 2-1 lead.
Loogootee had four different players with more than 20 digs: Jocelyn Strange and Makenzie VanHoy had 24 digs each, Asia Crim had 23, and Kylie VanHoy had 21.
But the more Loogootee dug, the more Nies wanted Pioneer to continue to attack.
“You’ve just got to keep beating the ball,” Nies said. “Sooner or later, the percentages go to the hitters. They really do. I mean, you’re only going to dig so many hard hits. Their defense was stellar. We did not realize that they were that good of a defensive team. We thought Lakewood Park Christian was the best defensive team, but I’d have to give it to Loogootee.
“They played us tough.”
Then again, Pioneer tries to make things hard on the VanHoys.
“Their libero (Strange) is really good,” Walker said. “She gets everything, so we knew they went to 22 (Makenzie VanHoy) and 12 (Kylie VanHoy), so those were the best hitters that they had. So we just had to close them down.”
Loogootee’s Jaelyn Walker won the state mental attitude award.
Pioneer def. Loogootee, 25-23, 27-29, 27-25, 25-22
Madison Blickenstaff - 13 kills, 39 serves received, 14 digs, 1 block; Brooklyn Borges - 3 kills, 1 dig; Carlie Morris - 1 assist, 15 digs, 2 aces; Olivia Brooke - 5 kills, 38 assists, 21 digs, 1 block; Hailey Cripe - 22 kills, 16 serves received, 27 digs, 1 block, 1 ace; Kennedy Corn - 3 blocks; Mackenzie Walker - 8 kills, 7 assists, 14 serves received, 21 digs, 1 block; Mackenzie Robinson - 2 assists, 14 serves received, 15 digs
The Pioneer volleyball team celebrates with the Class 1A state championship trophy following their 25-23, 27-29, 27-25, 25-22 win over Loogootee at Worthen Arena in Muncie Saturday. The state title is the first in Pioneer history.