They called Sydney Katz over to take a keepsake photo with the three other seniors on the Oakdale volleyball team Wednesday night following a 26-24, 24-26, 25-9, 19-25, 15-9 victory over visiting Williamsport in the Class 2A West Region II championship match.
But, first, Katz had to set down her crutches.
During Monday’s regional semifinal victory over Walkersville, Katz crumpled to the floor in pain with the score tied at 4 in the second set. The eventual diagnosis? A torn ACL.
It was a stunning and abrupt end to the high-school career of an All-State level setter with more than 2,000 assists to her name at Oakdale. It was also a potential season-altering setback for the Bears.
“We were all really scared because we were all thinking that this is the year we could go to states,” sophomore Elise Smith said. “We have really strong seniors and a really strong all-around team. So, it was really scary because she is a really good player and a really good leader.”
At practice Tuesday, coach Jim Dorsch approached Smith, a tall, left-handed player, about doing some setting. Though she had practiced setting on many occasions, she had never done it in a game.
“I was a little freaked out,” Smith admitted.
But the plan was now clear. Smith would hit and block, like she normally did, when she was on the front row and then set when she rotated onto the back line.
Junior Jenna Harding, meanwhile, who took over at setter against Walkersville after Katz went down, would become the setter when Smith went to the front row.
Together, they would have to help shepherd Oakdale through Wednesday’s region final over the course of five tense, pressure-packed sets against visiting Williamsport, the defending state champion in the classification.
“I was kind of nervous, but I was kind of excited for the new experience,” Smith said. “I knew that Jenna would help me out.”
On match point for Oakdale, Smith received a pass and set it for reigning All-County Co-Player of the Year Jess Twilley, who pounded it home for her match-high 15th kill to punctuate the back-and-fourth affair for the Bears.
Oakdale (15-1) dug out of a 24-22 hole in the first set, nearly did so again in the second before dropping it, dominated Williamsport in the third and slipped again in the third to set the stage for the dramatic finish.
The Bears claimed their third regional title in six seasons and will host a state quarterfinal at 5 p.m. Friday. Their opponent has yet to be announced because all of the regional champions will be reseeded in the MPSSAA’s new playoff format.
The two previous times Oakdale won regional titles in 2014 and ’17, it came away with a state title.
“[Jenna and Elise] did an amazing job of setting,” said Twilley, who also had 20 digs, three blocks and three service aces. “It’s a lot of pressure to come into your first match [as a setter] in the regional finals, and they did great.”
Harding finished with 23 assists and three aces, while Smith had 12 assists to go along with nine kills, five blocks and four digs.
“They did an amazing job. I am really proud of them,” said Katz, who was able to move around without her crutches, though her coaches prefer that she didn’t, so as not to exacerbate her injury.
Senior Jen Chomiak delivered 11 kills, eight digs, three blocks and the service ace that clinched the first set for Oakdale. The Bears trailed 24-23 when she stepped to the service line, and she came through by helping win three consecutive points.
“These girls are just great girls,” Dorsch said. “We have four seniors and a lot of young players, and the seniors are the ones that made it a team. They worked hard to make sure everyone was included. We have two freshmen on the team as well. They don’t get on the court a lot, but they are learning what it means to play Oakdale volleyball.”