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Mariah Leonard, Griffith heading to regionals for fourth straight year
Girls volleyball | Regional

Mariah Leonard, Griffith heading to regionals for fourth straight year

Mariah Leonard

Griffith junior Mariah Leonard is one of the team leaders this season as the Panthers don’t have any seniors on the roster. The libero leads Griffith with 54 aces and 313 digs.

Mariah Leonard is comfortable in a mask.

The Griffith junior is used to hiding in plain sight. While programs like Munster, Crown Point and LaPorte have dominated the headlines for the last two months, the Panthers have been slowly inching their way to the postseason.

Leonard knows her team doesn’t have the fancy undefeated conference record of the Slicers or perhaps the Division I recruits that line the rosters of the Mustangs and Bulldogs. What Leonard does have is a group of teammates that have loved showing up to the gym every day and they’re going to keep doing it for as long as their play on the court or as long as COVID-19 allows them.

“It doesn’t faze me at all,” Leonard said. “It would be amazing to get recognized all the time, but we don’t play for that. We all play because we truly love the game of volleyball. We love playing with one another.”

The Panthers do have something going for them that none of the other three programs have: four straight sectional championships. There isn’t a single player in the Griffith program that has ever experienced a loss in sectional play. Andrean and its five straight sectional titles is the only program in Northwest Indiana to have a longer streak.

“It’s awesome that we have been winning in the sectional, but we need to change our focus now,” Griffith coach Melissa Ballenger said. “We need to get over the hump in the regional now.”

Griffith will open play at the Class 3A Hanover Central Regional on Saturday against New Prairie (23-7). If the Panthers (13-10) advance, they’ll take on Benton Central in the title match. The Bison (25-4) already secured a spot in the title game after Culver Academy was forced to drop out of the tournament due to COVID-19 exposure.

It was COVID-19 precautions that kept the Panthers sidelined for the beginning of the season and helped to establish an identity of a team that was just eager to get on the court together. Leonard and her teammates started their season two weeks later than the bulk of their opponents, and they’ve been racing to catch up ever since.

“We started a little late and we needed to make up for that,” Leonard said. “Some of those earlier matches were hard because we were going against teams that had more experience playing together this season.”

Experience is now something that Leonard is expecting to be a positive for the Panthers. Griffith’s roster is made up entirely of underclassmen as there isn’t a senior on the roster. The junior class has been together under Ballenger for three years and the group earned a ton of experience in last season’s regional loss to West Lafayette.

“That match was way tougher than I think we were prepared for,” Leonard said. “We know now not to expect anything easy. We’re very excited for the opportunity that we have again and I know we are excited for another chance to play with each other.”

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Paul Oren has been a correspondent reporter for The Times since 2005. A member of the United States Basketball Writers Association, Paul has spent more than 15 years covering Valparaiso basketball.

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