For two unbeaten Big 30 volleyball teams, the path to Glens Falls stops through Le Roy today.
Cuba-Rushford and Portville, both 21-0 in non-tournament matches, play in today’s NYSPHSAA Far West Regional at Le Roy High School, the Rebels for the first time since 2010 and the Panthers for the fourth time in five years. C-R opens the day’s regional slate with a 1 p.m. Class D start against Section 6 champion Panama, then Portville takes on Section 5’s Penn Yan for a spot in the Class C state championship weekend.
For C-R, the road to regionals has been anything but easy. While the Rebels remain undefeated, they’ve won their last two matches in thrilling fashion. First, the Rebels rallied after dropping the first set of the Section 5 Class D1 championship to beat Byron-Bergen, 21-25, 25-20, 25-13, 25-13. Then, on Thursday, C-R erased another deficit, this time 2-1, to knock off Bishop Kearney, 23-25, 25-17, 20-25, 25-23, 25-16, to win the sectional crossover, a year after falling to C.G. in the same round.
In Panama (22-1), the Rebels face the 2017 state runner-up and 2016 champion.
Fifth-year coach Josh Tompkins, in his first regional after his second sectional title, thinks the Rebels have remained unbeaten by never looking past the next challenge.
“The girls are really good at taking things one day at time, one practice at a time, one game at a time,” Tompkins said. “It was really good for them in the regular season. They didn't get caught up in wins and losses, we were focused on playing good volleyball and getting better.
“Now in sectionals, it's all been about how can we play well, let's go out and play well. If we play well, we can win. The girls have really bought into that and they've done a great job just kind of shaking things off that go wrong or if we have a bad set here or there, a bad spell of play, they shake it off and just say, 'Hey, we're over that, let's move on.' They've really done a good job of just kind of keeping their heads down and looking forward.”
Adding to the excitement of C-R’s run, Tompkins said, is its relative lack of playoff experience. It has three major contributors from the 2017 Class D1 champions, now-seniors Madison Whitcher (middle hitter) and Rebekah Clark (libero/setter) and junior setter/outside hitter Kate Howe.
“Three girls on this team actually played significant time in the playoffs last year and the other girls that were on the team last year, they didn't have any sectional experience,” Tompkins said. “They might have played a couple points here and there in the first couple of (sectional) matches.
“It's been pretty new to a lot of the girls which is even cooler. For them to just kind of take it one day at a time and just keep plugging along is pretty cool.”
— At 3 p.m., defending Class C champion Portville will try to clinch a return to Glens Falls. Under coach Kelly Unverdorben, Portville won Class D state championships in 2014 and ‘15, while Unverdorben had another state title as a coach at Ellicottville in 2012 and one as a Portville assistant in 2008.
Though Portville got through this regular season unscathed, some losses in tournament play helped test this Panther squad, Unverdorben said.
"There were moments that just didn't go our way no matter what we tried," Unverdorben said. "We have had those moments, so things have definitely not been perfect for us and we know that and we practice according to that. We're hoping that we can just play really well going forward."
It’s also a bit of a new-look team Unverdorben’s bringing to regionals, with two of last year’s starters, Haley Unverdorben and Mady Domster, graduating and another, her daughter, Brooke Decker, out with an undisclosed injury.
"I wouldn't say we haven't had any slip-ups," Unverdorben said. "We've been to some tournaments and lost a couple sets to Victor and and dropped a set to a couple different teams there. We had a slip-up with Olean.”
With Decker out, the Panthers still have four senior captains with championship experience: middle blocker Beth Miller, libero Ericka Carlson and outside hitters Sierra Keim and Sydney Colligan.
"There were spots on our team that we had to fill and fill them well in order to make this work and be able to at least come close to as good as the team was last year," Unverdorben said. "But they're really excited. They're definitely fighters. They won't go down without a fight. If they go down, they go down, but they're not going to go down without a fight. They'll battle. That's always kind of been our motto."
After winning its first sectional title in program history Penn Yan (13-9) earned its spot in the regional with a sweep of Warsaw.
"They have a girl that's a little over six foot, they love to feed the ball to her whether it's front row or back row," Unverdorben said of the Mustangs. "So we are aware of that. They look a pretty decent defensive team and decent serving team, so we're just going to keep those things in mind and just do our best and do our thing on our side of the court and go from there and hopefully we're prepared enough."