Badger builds up to NAC Championship

Staff photo / Brad Emerine The Badger volleyball team celebrates a point during Wednesday’s win over Maplewood. The Braves clinched a share of the NAC title.

KINSMAN — The five-year plan is paying off for Badger High School volleyball coach Erin Smolinski and assistant coach Becca Waldo.

The Braves clinched a share of the Northeastern Athletic Conference championship by beating visiting Maplewood 27-25, 25-21, 25-14 on Wednesday to improve to 19-2 overall and 16-1 in the league.

Badger can earn the title outright with a win today on Senior Night against Newbury.

“It’s been an amazing season so far,” said senior middle-blocker Kyler Morgan, who registered eight kills against the Rockets. “We knew how important this match was. We may have been somewhat nervous, but we really picked it up late in the second set and then played real well in the last one. We knew we had to win tonight in order to try to win the outright title (today).

“I think if we play to our potential, we should go far in the tournament and we’re excited about that possibility, too.”

Smolinski recalled some rough early practices in her first season as coach in 2015.

“When I came here five years ago, I walked into the gym, looked around and said, ‘What I get myself into? We need a lot of work.’ But Becca and I have molded the girls and the girls have definitely worked at it and really developed. It’s truly unique to see the girls and the program begin to flourish.

“I think the biggest thing we did was start a junior high program in the second season. That has really been helpful. We don’t have to teach the basics of the sport much now when they come in as freshmen. This is the first senior group to come through the junior high program.”

The Braves went 4-12 in that first season, 6-17 in 2016, 1-18 in 2017 and 5-15 last year.

Senior setter and right-side hitter Paige Kramar said the mentality and culture has changed. That is evident by the fact that those two seniors had a combined 12 win entering the season.

“I think we’re scrappy and we have great chemistry and that has helped us turn the corner this year,” she said. “We’re not real dominant hitters, but we are effective and hopefully efficient. We have several girls who are capable of getting hot and so we move things around until we find someone having a good night.

“What’s fun is when they’re all on their game at the same time because we can attack different spots and I’m not always setting to the same player or the same spot. I like to read the floor. My court awareness is one of my strengths. I am aware of my role as a leader, but we’re really all leaders.”

Volleyball typically is played with a lot of emotion and Kramar is one of the Braves leading that salvo.

“We feed off each other, but I can pump them up pretty good though,” said Kramar, who totaled four aces, 18 assists and 28 digs against Maplewood. “I like playing with emotion. Ally (Yauger), our libero, is a great junior leader, too.”

Badger’s turnaround has also turned heads of area coaches. The Braves are the top seed in the Division IV district tournament and have a first-round bye. They begin the postseason 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at Chalker, where they will battle either eighth-seeded Lordstown or ninth-seeded Windham.

“We haven’t been past a sectional final since I’ve been here and we’d certainly like to earn a banner so it doesn’t look so bare under the volleyball heading up there,” Smolinski said. “We made it to a sectional final in 2016, so we’d obviously like to go a lot further this year.”

The Braves have proven to be a scrappy, hungry bunch.

“If there’s not a body falling after the ball, they’re not playing hard enough,” Smolinski said. “They’re probably tired of hearing me say that. I tell them all the time and they certainly have bought into that.

“With just two seniors, we’re a junior-heavy team. This season and next season I’m coaching my kids, the ones that were there since seventh and eighth grade when I started with them. They’re my girls.”

Against Maplewood, junior middle hitter Grace Popovich had 10 kills, junior Calena Jablonski had four blocks and 13 digs and Yauger posted 30 digs.

The Rockets fell to 9-13 overall and finished 9-9 in league play. They were led by Sadey Morris (four aces, four kills), Grace Crown (five kills, three blocks), Madison Murray (four kills, 15 digs), Paige Fleischer (10 assists) and Chloe Thompson (16 digs).