By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Racing past the Waterford Kettering Captains in three sets on Nov. 6, the Oxford Wildcats volleyball team set up a district final showdown with their border rival, the Lake Orion Dragons, last Thursday.
Having split their previous two meetings this season, the rubber match would take place on the largest of stages. Serving as the Michigan High School Athletic Association District 5 host, Lake Orion had the benefit of playing on their home floor, but plenty of Oxford students made the trip to cheer on their Lady Wildcats, too.
Jumping out to an early lead in the match, the Wildcats prevailed in the first set, 25-20. Knotted at 15 in the set, junior Emma LaBarge – one of Oxford’s best offensive forces all season – came alive late to help seal the deal.
Lake Orion would even the match at one with a 27-25 victory in the second set. A great representation of the back-and-forth action that took place all evening long, the two teams were within one point of each other for nearly the entire set before Dragons freshman Nina Horning delivered the decisive blow.
In the lone set of the evening that was not closely contested, Lake Orion took their first lead of the match with a 25-12 third set victory. Clawing their way back with strong defensive play from sophomore Raegan Bell and timely attacks from senior Peyton Krajcarski, the Wildcats evened the score at two by winning the fourth set, 25-23.
With fans of both schools hanging on every move, the Dragons emerged victorious in the fifth, and final, set, 15-12.
“It was a tough battle, both sides,” Oxford head coach Brian Kim said. “You saw the energy both teams played with and I think it could have gone either way.”
Coming up with a big play seemingly each time Oxford needed one, senior Maddie Weiss closed out her four-year varsity career in impressive fashion.
“She did a really good job leading the team defensively, but also from a leadership perspective. Whenever Lake Orion would go on a run, Maddie would get the team together and back on the same page.”
Weiss’ hustle and ability to lead by example are a large part of why the Wildcats were able to win 27 matches this year, their most since the 2016-17 academic year.
“Maddie knows what it takes to compete,” Kim said. “She’s one of the main reasons the culture at Oxford has changed over the last couple of years.”
While the team was understandably emotional to have their season end in such close fashion, this year was undoubtedly another step in the right direction for Kim’s program and there are plenty of reasons for optimism looking ahead.
“Really proud of the girls, we had a few players really step up,” he said. “Our middle, LaBarge, she has been very effective. Our outside hitters, junior Molly Miller and senior Sydney Richter, they put our offense in a really good spot to succeed.”
As with any season, there will be a level of turnover for the 2020-21 team as the graduations of Krajcarski, Richter and Weiss will be felt. However, Kim and assistant coaches Samantha Aliah and Rick Wooten-Smith have done an excellent job of assembling a young, ascending roster. In addition to Bell, LaBarge and Miller, juniors Gabby Comito and Meghan Lupu round out a deep list of returnees.
The reigning Division I state champions, Lake Orion had a difficult road to even appear in the district finals. Upsetting the Clarkston Wolves – the No. 6 team in the state – on Nov. 4, the Dragons then dispatched the Holly Bronchos on Nov. 6.
Lake Orion’s head coach, Tony Scavarda, was very complimentary of the Wildcats’ showing. “That’s the best I’ve seen Oxford play all year. I must hand it to them, man. We had to scrap and claw for every point tonight.”
Having traversed all that comes with being the defending champion thus far, Scavarda likes the composure he has seen from his Lady Dragons. “That’s always the question when you have a young team, ‘Can you come back from being down like that? Can they persevere and stay in it mentally?’”
Lake Orion advanced to face Stoney Creek in the MHSAA Regional Semifinal on Nov. 12 at Stoney Creek High School.