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Coventry volleyball reaches unprecedented heights

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

COVENTRY TWP.   A lot of weird, unusual and unprecedented things have occurred in 2020.

Much of the time, they’ve been bad, challenging or outright weird. When it comes to Coventry volleyball’s history-making campaign, however, unprecedented was an extremely positive term.

Coventry's Ronnie Meinen, right, spikes the ball against Tallmadge's Emma Eyre during the second set of a Division II regional semifinal volleyball match, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Stow, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

For the first time in school history, the Comets not only reached a district final, but captured the title and kept on rolling with a regional semifinal win before falling in four sets in the regional final to Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, one step shy of their first-ever state tournament appearance.

Their 23-3 season included two undefeated months in the middle of the campaign, an undefeated league record, a third straight league title across two different conferences and a long stretch where they not only didn’t lose matches, but didn’t lose sets.

Eighth-year head coach Breanna Caslow noted that this year’s tournament experience was a unique one for the Comets for multiple reasons.

Coventry's Mallory Meinen, left, celebrates with teammates as the Comets increase their lead over Tallmadge during the third set of a Division II regional semifinal volleyball match, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Stow, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

“It was our first year with a mega-district. There were 36 teams when usually we have 15 teams in our bracket,” Caslow said. “There were three brackets, so you had three district champs, but you had all of these teams you have no idea about. Thankfully, we had such a good record that we got a high seed.”

The so-called mega-district included squads such as Gilmour Academy and Holy Name, which claimed the top two seeds in the bracket. That left Coventry with a decision to make; pick a spot as the top seed in the third bracket, away from the top two seeds, or willingly jump into a bracket with Gilmour or Holy Name.

Caslow suspected that if she chose the third bracket, other higher-seeded teams would follow, looking to avoid Holy Name and Gilmour. She elected to pick the same bracket as Holy Name, a choice that paid off when Hoban upset the Green Wave one game prior to a possible matchup with the Comets.

Coventry's Miya Gotto, facing, celebrates a point against Triway during the second set of a Division II district volleyball match, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Coventry, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

“To have the second seed knocked out the game before they plated us, we were fortunate able to win the district against some tough teams,” Caslow said.”We played Copley, who we played earlier in the season and beat in five sets, Triway, who we beat earlier in four sets, and Hoban, who we had only scrimmaged. It just worked out and our girls just peaked at the right time.”

It was a group that included Metro Athletic Conference Player of the Year Carly Wightman, who posted 314 kills and 69 blocks to pace her team. Fellow first-team All-MAC selections Ronnie Meinen (250 kills, 50 blocks), Mallory Meinen (750 assists, 174 service points) and Miya Gotto (176 digs, 176 service points) were key parts of the rotation as well, with Cassidy Karakis, Morgan Goodlet, Brooke Mirka and Haley Futrell also earning all-league honors. Gotto also scored second-team all-district recognition.

When looking to capture the first district title in school history, it takes a team effort and it proved to be exactly that all fall long for Coventry. In capturing the inaugural MAC title following back-to-back undefeated league championship seasons to close out the Portage Trail Conference Metro Division’s tenure, the Comets kept their league unbeaten streak alive and well at three seasons and counting.

Among local programs, few such streaks have extended that far, with Jackson’s six-plus season undefeated Federal League streak in the middle portion of the last decade serving as one example.

Although the program has established itself as a powerhouse the past three seasons, Caslow admitted the regional final wasn’t quite on the radar entering the year.

“Definitely it was district finals because the last three years in the district semifinals we got knocked out, so regionals were not a thought, but we go on a roll now winning and making it to the regional final,” Caslow said. “Going that long without losing has its ups and downs. We hadn’t lost since the end of August and not even losing a set is exciting, but it was also tough going into the regional final because we won the first set, lost second one, then lost set three and I don’t know that we had ever been down two sets to one this year, so it was tough.”

Coventry's Morgan Goodlet gets under the ball during the second set of a Division II district volleyball match against Triway, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Coventry, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Reaching the state final four after never making it to the final 16 in the state before would have been an amazing feat, with the closest call coming in 1983 when the Comets reached the district final and lost. In the years in between that run and the current one, there were some lean campaigns.

When Caslow took over, she inherited a squad with a losing record and saw her first team go 7-16. The next two seasons yielded .500 records that were steps forward, but only hinted at what was to come. How Coventry has gone from a program in the bottom half of its conference to one that has an iron grip on its top spot stems from multiple factors, but one of the primary reasons seems to be a buy-in to the sport for players beyond the varsity level.

“When I took over we had powerhouse volleyball schools like Kent Roosevelt and Crestwood in our league and we hadn’t had a winning season in a long while,” Caslow said. “I wouldn’t have guessed after my first year that we would be in a regional final in just a few seasons.  When I started, we had one girl playing Junior Olympic volleyball and now our entire varsity team plays and couple of JV players do too … probably three-fourths of our middle school program plays JO and the sixth graders who will be coming out for the middle school team next season all play JO.”

Competing at a high level for their club teams has given the Comets a boost when they come together for the varsity squad and the results are tough to argue with over the past three years. Where that progress leads from here is the next big question, but the program’s current trajectory has been all upward.