Columbus Academy's Brie Stahl works the ball up field in a 2-1 loss to Olentangy Liberty on Oct. 8.
Area dynasties look to keep playoff dominance going As the shadows grow longer in October, high school teams prepare for their runs in the state tournaments. Certain schools’ names pop up again and again as the teams to beat in their prospective sports: Columbus Academy in field hockey, DeSales in football, Newark Catholic in girls volleyball, Upper Arlington in girls tennis and Worthington Christian in boys soccer to mention a few. How are these teams able to make their mark in the postseason year after year? The answer could be as simple as one word: tradition. DESALES FOOTBALL Last October seemed a little bit colder for coach Ryan Wiggins and the DeSales football team. After finishing 5-5 overall, the Stallions were left out of the Division III playoffs, snapping an 18-year string of consecutive playoff berths for DeSales. “It was very different when the playoffs are going on and your team is not in the discussion,” says Wiggins, whose team suffered two triple overtime losses last year. “We were knocking at the door but we didn’t get in.” There have been seasons when a .500 finish could get the Stallions into the playoffs. In 2005, DeSales struggled to a 5-5 record and grabbed the eighth spot for the Division III playoffs. The Stallions won four straight games before a 27-21 overtime loss to Mentor Lake Catholic in the state championship game. DeSales has made the finals eight times and won state championships in 1985, 97 and 98. Wiggins says the tradition is both a blessing and a curse. “Your expectations are so high,” Wiggins says. “While that is a good thing, there’s a good chance when you set the bar too high, you aren’t going to reach it.” If DeSales, 3-3 overall before facing rival Watterson on Oct. 18, is to return to the playoffs, it’ll have to do it on the road. The Stallions only have two home games this year with road games in Toledo, Akron, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Playing some of the other region’s powerhouses often does a lot of cosmetic damage to the team’s record. But it often gives the Stallions the computer points they need to get into the playoffs. Playing in the three-team Central Catholic League Silver Division gives Wiggins a chance to explore different styles of football. “The fact that we have traveled around and played different styles makes us playoff ready,” Wiggins says. “In the playoffs, a lot of times the teams they throw out there are teams you’ve never seen before. We really aren’t caught off guard by too much.” UA GIRLS TENNIS Some high school teams measure their success in trophies or championships or medals. The Upper Arlington girls tennis team measures its success in planks of wood. In the green chain link fence behind its courts, a wood plaque records the name of a player or team and the date every time UA captures a state championship. “It’s definitely inspired me to try to get my name and year up there,” said junior Audrey Berger, who qualified for the Division I state doubles tournament with teammate Kyra Jung after placing third in the Division I Central District doubles tournament Oct. 11-12 at Hilliard Davidson. “It is motivating for me.” Like DeSales, UA finds itself trying to start a new streak. Last year marked the first time in 19 years the Bears didn’t have a representative in the OHSAA individual state tournament or in the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association team tournament. “Not everything in life goes the way you want it to go,” says coach Shaun Stamps whose team was 15-1 overall before facing Dublin Jerome in an OTCA district final on Oct. 15. “The key is accepting it, working hard and trying our best not to have that happen again.” Stamps hopes his team can also qualify for the team state tournament. UA needed to defeat Dublin Jerome on Oct. 15 return to the OTCA team tournament on Oct. 20 after a two-year absence. When Stamps took over the program in the summer of 2003, the Bears were strangers to adversity. The team has produced three singles champions, four doubles champions and 13 team championships. In Stamp’s first season, the Bears’ Kirsten Flower defeated teammate Christine Johnston to win the state singles title, Kelsey Linville and Madora Mak won the state doubles title and the team had won its sixth consecutive state team title. Stamps knew that kind of domination wasn’t going to last. “I wanted to keep that tradition going, but I also knew that at one point they aren’t always going to be as dominant (as they were in 2002),” says Stamps whose team won 179 matches consecutively from Sept. 1999 to Oct. 22, 2006. “That’s what I was excited for. I wanted to coach them through that adversity.” Despite the increase in competition, Stamps says the goals for the team remain the same: to win the OCC, to get to the team state tournament and to get as many players they can to the district and to the state. “If you notice, qualifying for the state tournament individually is the last thing on my list,” Stamp says. “We’d much rather win the state team tournament.” COLUMBUS ACADEMY FIELD HOCKEY Both Wiggins and Stamps stepped into programs that were firmly established before they got there. Anne Horton had to start from scratch when she started the Columbus Academy field hockey team 23 years ago. In 1991, Academy opened its doors to female students and its first two sports were girls tennis and field hockey. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Horton says with a laugh. “We just jumped into it and started working very hard.” The Vikings didn’t score a goal until midway through that first season and struggled to a .500 finish. Three years later, the Vikings captured their first of eight state championships. Currently the Vikings have double the number of titles of their closest competitor, Kettering Fairmont (four). Additionally, Academy has reached the state semifinals 17 times and finished second in the state four times. As the tournament begins on Oct. 14, the Vikings will be looking for a fifth consecutive berth to the state semifinals. However Horton says the gap between Academy and the other central Ohio schools is getting smaller. “When we first started, we had the kids for three months out of the year,” Horton says. “Now there are more field hockey club opportunities for kids and kids are playing 10 months out of the year.” When Horton first started at the school, Academy only offered field hockey and tennis. With the school adding cross country, soccer, golf and volleyball, girls can choose more from sports than just field hockey and girls tennis. Horton hopes her team’s tradition will continue to draw in athletes. “There’s more competition for athletes at our school,” Horton says. “I do believe once your program hits a certain level of history, it starts to feed itself. The younger kids want to be a part of that and they know they have to produce. (Every preseason) you look down the ranks and you kind of hold your breath.” WORTHINGTON CHRISTIAN BOYS SOCCER Perhaps no team has benefited more from an OHSAA decision to add a Division III tournament than Worthington Christian. Before 2000, the Warriors struggled to get past the regional tournament. Since a third division was added in 2000, the Warriors have made it to the state semifinals 11 times in 13 years, winning state titles in 2006, 2009 and 2011. “It’s an incredible program,” says Worthington Christian coach Dan Roads, whose team is 10-3-2 overall after tying Bexley 2-2 on Oct. 12. “We had some amazing coaches who set the tone here. I’ve had players come out for the team saying they dreamed of playing for this team for three or four years.” Worthington Christian entered the tournament looking to extend its nine year string of making the state semifinals. Since 2011, the Warriors have compiled a 20-2-2 record against teams in their own division. Worthington Christian prepares for the postseason with a steady diet of Division I and II teams. Out of their 15 games this season, five were against Division I teams and four were against Division II squads. “We want to play the toughest schedule possible,” Roads says. “When we go into the tournament knowing we’ve played the best teams we could find, it gives us a confidence. They’ve been through tough games, had tough losses and felt pressure before, there’s never anything new to them in the tournament.” The key for the Warriors’ success is getting students to buy into the program. Roads says everyone on his team has a role to play. This season they’ve all contributed to the offense with 16 out of 20 players on the roster scoring a goal. “We preach about sacrifice a lot. It’s all about the team,” Roads says. “We never talk about winning a league title or a state championship. All those things are secondary. “We want to play soccer differently and act differently than other teams. If that means playing in a state championship game, so be it.” NEWARK CATHOLIC VOLLEYBALL At a time when other teams are starting to plan their awards banquet, coach Jeri Helfer feels the Newark Catholic girls volleyball team is just getting started. “We always have a tournament kickoff banquet,” says Helfer, a 1988 Newark Catholic graduate. “We invite the junior high players and all the players. It sets the tone for us and gets us ready for a tournament run.” The Green Wave is bracing itself for another long run when the tournament opens on Oct. 14. With eight state titles apiece, Newark Catholic and Cincinnati St. Ursula Academy have won more state championships than any other school. By the time seventh graders attend the team’s volleyball camp in the summer, Helfer says they’re well acclimated to Newark Catholic’s postseason tradition. “One of the things we teach them is about what it means to be a part of the Newark Catholic volleyball team,” Helfer says. “(State championships are) an expectation.” The Green Wave has an impressive roster of alumni including University of Mount Union women’s volleyball coach Leigh Ann Swartz and Otterbein University coach Monica McDonald. Swartz’s 172-57 record ranks her among the top 25 active Division III coaches in career winning percentage. McDonald was selected as one of the 2013 American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) “30 Under 30” award recipients, which goes to top 30 coaches under the age of 30. According to Helfer, the alumni play a key role in getting her teams focused for the tournament. Many write letters to the current players and Helfer posts them on a bulletin board. “We get letters from players who were three-time state champions and from ones who didn’t make it to the state tournament,” Helfer says. “They write all kinds of things from a real short blurb of ‘Kick butt’ or ‘Remember everyone is behind you.' “One of them wrote ‘Take a minute to take a look around you and absorb the atmosphere because you may never have this feeling again.’ That makes an impact on to continuing the tradition.”