VANDALIA—Independence was pushed to the limit but the Blue Devils responded with a 3-2 win over Tuscarawas Valley in a Division III state semifinal at Butler High School on Saturday.

With the win, the Blue Devils improved to 25-3 and will play in Sunday’s state championship game against Huron.

“The opportunity to play again (in the state championship) is what we’ve been working for but Tusky was a battle today,” Independence coach Tony Messina said. “In set one, we were firing on all cylinders. We were pressuring them like we do with aggressive serving but they came right back at us in two. They weren’t giving up. They played hard and put it right back on us.”

The Blue Devils cruised to a 25-11 win in the first set.

Independence’s offense was clicking early with setter Abby Avila, who finished with 42 assists, distributing the ball to each zone and the hitters put the ball down.

The Trojans, who were swept by the Blue Devils in the regular season, bounced back with a thrilling 25-20 win in the second set.

Independence won the third set, 25-17, but again the Trojans responded with a 25-16 win in the fourth to force the decisive fifth set.

Back-to-back service aces helped spark the Trojans to a big run in the fourth set.

“From set two on, to me, it was a war,” Messina said. “They had a few rolls go their way in four and that just gets you going. They were rolling us off the floor in four but the girls got it together and came back in five and we got back into our game. I’m very proud of what they accomplished.”

Led by Callie Prokopius, who had back-to-back kills, Independence went on to win the fifth set, 15-11.

Prokopius and Madison Stepanik both finished with a team-high 11 kills. Grace Smotek, Grace Taliaferro and Sammy Barther all finished with nine kills. Smotek finished with a team-best 20 digs while Macy McNamara contributed with 17.

“This is one of the best teams from a team standpoint that I’ve had. Everybody contributes,” Messina said. “Callie had a great day today. She put the ball down when we needed her to. She played well and everybody else did as well. You can go down the line, everybody did something. We play six or seven and everybody did something.”

The Blue Devils will play Huron for the second time this season with the state championship hanging in the balance. The match is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Independence lost at Huron on Oct. 3, 3-2.

While the Blue Devils look to avenge that loss and win their first state title in their fourth straight Final Four appearance, they’ll also have to overcome the adversity they’ll face while waiting out the day in their hotel rooms.

“We’ll try to manage the day,” Messina said. “Coming to state multiple times, the hardest thing about states is we have a routine and the routine gets shattered when you come to state. This year, with the pandemic, it’s really shattered. We play at 7:30 and we’re in the hotel waiting around to play all day. Managing that will be No. 1.”

The OHSAA will broadcast the state championship match on the NFHS Network. Click here to tune in.

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The creator and publisher of OhioVarsity.com, Hare has covered high school sports in Northeast Ohio since 1997. He began as a correspondent for the Lake County News Herald, where he contributed until 2011, primarily covering high school football and wrestling. In 1999, Hare began writing for IrishIllustrated.com, a member of the Scout.com network of high school and college sports web sites. He focuses on covering Notre Dame football recruiting. OhioVarsity.com was created in 2004 and was a member of the Rivals.com network until 2012. The site's original purpose was to cover Ohio high school football and recruiting news but since has grown to cover all sports and to provide sports information services to high school athletic programs and individual teams. Hare attended Willoughby South High School through the middle of his senior year, then graduated from Berkshire High School in Burton in 1986. He played football, wrestled and was an all-Geauga county baseball player (1986). He lives in Chardon with his wife Paulette and their children.