HUNTINGTON | The motto on the warm-up T-shirts all year was #FEARLESS.
All season Munster’s volleyball team lived fearlessly, embodying the word.
That fearlessness persisted on Saturday morning in the first semifinal of the Class 4A Huntington North Semistate, but the best player on the floor was on the other team and the Mustangs dropped an intense four-set battle to first-time semistate participant Elkhart Central, 27-25, 25-17, 24-26, 25-23.
“This just proved that we were fearless the whole season,” Munster senior Shannon Farrell said. “Even though sometimes we did get down, we always got back up.”
Purdue recruit Azariah Stahl, who can touch 10 feet, 4 inches (Munster’s best jumpers max at a 9-6 reach), had 37 kills as the Blue Blazers (30-3) won the right to face No. 1 Carmel in the evening championship.
Munster began the season with modest expectations but developed into a highly coachable, tight-knit group that won almost every time it played. Munster (34-4) was in the semistate for the second time in three years.
Unlike the 2011 sweep at the hands of Westfield, Munster won a set and pushed another lost one past the 25-point mark.
“I think we fought back a lot harder this year,” senior middle hitter Elizabeth Kloos said. “I felt like sophomore year, when we came out, we couldn’t find our game, and today we did.”
After dropping the first two games, the Mustangs, who were fresh off an overnight local hotel stay, were back to themselves in full force in the third game, running off six points to take a 6-1 lead and go up 16-6 and 17-7.
Before the third game, Munster coach Tracy Summers switched the offensive formation from a 5-1 to a 6-2 and told the players, including six seniors, they had come too far to give up who they are.
“We just don’t give up,” Summers said. “We’re used to having maybe one bad game here and there, but that doesn’t get us down because we know we can pull together and play our best and win. We don’t lose two and think we have a loss. That never happens."
Kloos, a Quinnipiac recruit, matched Farrell, a Southern Indiana recruit, with 12 kills to lead Munster. Farrell added 20 digs. Senior setter Morgan Switalla had 21 assists and 19 digs.
Senior Amber Caldwell, who led Munster with 21 digs, said, “Play for Colleen” in the same huddle after the second game. The team competed in memory of classmate and friend Colleen Lusk, who died of cystic fibrosis the week of sectionals, which inspired the Mustangs, Kloos said.
“We fought back,” Kloos said. “They had a great hitter. We did our best to stop her, but she’s a great hitter. We played our game, and we gave what we had.”
Most of the fourth game was close. After a 22-22 tie Elkhart Central went up 24-22, then 24-23 on an Elkhart net violation. With the serve in hand, Munster took a return volley and set up a kill, but tori Foster’s attack went out of bounds past the back line and the NCC logo in the Huntington free throw key, and the rally and season were over.
The Mustangs took a game and a half to get consistent handles on attacks of Stahl, who had most of Elkhart Central’s big plays, including the final two kills of a 27-25 opening set. She also had a kill to disrupt an improbable string of Munster volleys in the second game and many more, especially late in each game.
“We weren’t able to capitalize when she was in the back row as much as we would have liked,” Summers said. “Their offense is basically two players. I never thought in volleyball two players could take over a match. We just have a different philosophy.”