April 24, 2014

Medina
Mostly cloudy
48°F

Regional volleyball: Blue Devils can’t break through wall

BRECKSVILLE — North Royalton seniors Rachel Krikke and Natasha Medic threw a block party Thursday in the Division I regional semifinals.

Unfortunately, their celebration came at the expense of Brunswick’s volleyball team.

Brunswick’s Gabbie Bulic hits against North Royalton’s Natasha Medic. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

Krikke and Medic combined for 14 blocks and 18 kills — controlling the net from start to finish — as the Bears eliminated the Blue Devils 27-25, 25-21, 25-21 in the Sweet 16 of the tournament.

North Royalton (22-4) earned a trip to the regional final at Norwalk, while Brunswick (18-8) saw its school record-tying postseason run end just four wins shy of a state title.

“Their blocking was really, really good today and made a big difference,” said Blue Devils middle hitter Gabrielle Bulic, who had 13 kills, three rejections and three aces. “We weren’t expecting them to be that strong, but they deserve a lot of credit for the way they played at the net.

“It’s just too bad it happened here because we had such a fun run. I’m sad to see it end.”

Krikke paced the Bears with 12 kills, while fellow 6-foot-2 middle hitter Medic added six. Each of them had seven blocks while defending from antenna to antenna, allowing North Royalton to win the blocking battle 17-10.

Brunswick finished with 43 kills to the Bears’ 40, but also committed 13 more errors because its offense was dramatically altered by North Royalton’s front-row jumping jacks.

“It’s unfortunate we didn’t go out with everything we had, but it just wasn’t our best night,” Blue Devils coach Mande Pyzik said. “Even when we went up, things didn’t feel quite right because we weren’t celebrating and cheering like usual.

“When you’re playing a team as good as North Royalton, you can’t afford not to be ‘on’ at all times. We weren’t, and they made us pay.”

Outside hitters Morgan Ritchie (13 kills, 10 assists, 3 blocks) and Alex Fuldauer (11 kills, 2 blocks) played exceptionally in their final high school matches for Brunswick, which held the lead in all three games.

The Blue Devils’ best opportunity came in the first, when they went up 24-21 on a block/kill by setter Megan Anderson (24 assists), but squandered three subsequent game points. After the Bears took a 25-24 advantage, Pyzik called timeout and Fuldauer tied the score with a laser-shot from the left outside.

North Royalton, though, completed its 6-1 game-ending run with two Brunswick hitting errors and stole a 27-25 win — and all the momentum it needed in its regional debut.

“They were able to hit spots we weren’t in and kept finding open spaces on the court all night,” Fuldauer said. “You’d love to end on a good note and we tried our best, but it just didn’t happen.”

The Bears wrapped up the second game on a 7-2 spurt after the Blue Devils led 19-18, scoring the final four points in a 25-21 win, while their largest deficit in the third came at 8-5.

North Royalton setter Nicole Fortuna was superb throughout, dishing out 30 assists without an unforced error. The Bears also got the best of Brunswick during the regular season, winning in four games on Sept. 6 and in five on Sept. 27.

“Winning in three games here after going five with Brunswick the last time obviously gives us a lot more confidence,” North Royalton coach Kristin Hubbell said. “Stopping Gabbie was huge, which is why we focused on keeping the ball out of the middle and blocking aggressively.

“Nicole was the key, though, because she is a very, very smart setter. She spread the ball from pin to pin and kept them guessing, so they never could get comfortable.”

Libero Paige Elias (8 digs) and defensive specialists Jordan Verbiak (11 digs) and Allison Evans (5 digs, 1 ace) did their best to keep points alive for the Blue Devils, as did their large fan section, which dwarfed North Royalton’s crowd.

But in the end, there was nothing anyone could do to stop the Bears, who played a near-perfect match on the largest stage either team has ever performed on.

“It was really cool to see so many people from Brunswick in the stands supporting us,” Elias said. “I just wish we could have won it for them.

“Hopefully, the freshmen can take the team even farther in the future because this was a great experience for them to be a part of.”

First, though, the Blue Devils will catch their breath. Then, they’ll celebrate their first regional berth in 29 years — and thank Bulic, Elias, Fuldauer and Ritchie for building the foundation that future classes will build on.

“We’ll have to let the sting wear off, but once it does, we will have a lot of great memories to share,” Pyzik said. “It was a tough night, but this whole tournament was an awesome experience for all of us.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.