June 29, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Defeat doesn’t damper volleyball journey

Gabrielle Bulic, Morgan Ritchie, Paige Elias and Alex Fuldauer should be walking the halls of Brunswick High today with a huge sense of accomplishment.

Sure, traces of sadness and disappointment may linger following the Blue Devils’ 27-25, 25-21, 25-21 loss to North Royalton in a Division I regional semifinal volleyball match Thursday evening at Brecksville, but the four seniors have plenty of reasons to be proud.

Foremost among them is the fact Brunswick equaled the best volleyball postseason in school history. That the Blue Devils (18-8) did it after finishing fourth in the six-team Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division makes the ride more impressive still.

Think about that. The Blue Devils were fourth. Not fourth out of 12 teams, 10 teams or even eight teams. They were fourth out of six teams.

No matter how rugged the Valley Division is — and it is indeed rugged, as Norwalk Regional finalist North Royalton (22-4) shared the crown with D-I district finalists Strongsville and Solon — that doesn’t change the fact the Blue Devils advanced to the state’s Sweet 16 after failing to finish in the top half of their league.

“It was so much fun,” the 6-foot-5, University of Michigan-bound Bulic said. “It was the best thing I could have asked for my senior year. It was the best time I’ve ever had playing volleyball.”

The ride ended in part because the Blue Devils could not overcome a huge case of the jitters — “You gotta relax; you gotta relax,” coach Mande Pyzik gently but unsuccessfully told her players during a timeout late in Game 2 — but in bigger part because North Royalton, which beat Brunswick for the third time in three meetings this season, was better.

Not a ton better.

Not even significantly better.

But better.

“We were really excited and anxious about making it this far,” libero Elias said through a few tears. “It was a great experience. We just weren’t on tonight and it cost us.”

“This match was tough, but we played as hard as we could,” outside hitter Fuldauer added. “We just weren’t playing up to our potential. We weren’t on our game. We were really nervous, in all honesty. We just did not play to our potential.”

Two or three months from now — probably even two or three weeks from now — Brunswick players aren’t likely to remember many of the specifics of their third loss to the Bears.

They won’t dwell on the fact they had leads of 7-2, 15-9 and 24-21 in the first game, or that they committed numerous net violations in losing Games 2 and 3.

What they will remember is the enthusiastic crowd and raucous student bodies for both schools that filled virtually the entire side of a fairly big Brecksville gym.

More importantly, the Blue Devils will remember coming together as a team. They’ll remember playing up to their potential — and maybe even beyond it — in winning the school’s first district championship since 1983. They’ll remember succeeding at a very high level after going through a regular season that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

“We hadn’t gotten this far in a long time, so it was nice to show the freshman how intense it gets,” outside hitter/setter Ritchie said. “It definitely feels good. It’s a good way to end my volleyball career.

“We were just nervous. We’ve never come this far and we’ve never had this many fans. Nerves just got to us. We weren’t on our game tonight.”

Had the Blue Devils played their best match, they might have been able to beat the Bears. Then again, maybe North Royalton would have found a way to kick it up yet another notch.

That debate isn’t the slightest bit important now. What is important is that the Blue Devils — particularly seniors Bulic, Ritchie, Elias and Fuldauer — put together a highly successful tournament run.

And that is why they should keep their heads held high.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.