Van Wert’s Noelle Heffner with a pass during Tuesday match against Celina. The Lady Cougars fought hard but couldn’t pull out the win. (DHI Media/ Tina Eley)
Van Wert’s Noelle Heffner with a pass during Tuesday match against Celina. The Lady Cougars fought hard but couldn’t pull out the win. (DHI Media/ Tina Eley)
VAN WERT — “Just a couple of plays here and there, that’s what games are about,” said Van Wert volleyball coach Jeff Marbaugh Tuesday after his Cougars had lost a four-setter to Celina 25-23, 25-16, 22-25, 28-26. Celina is now 6-2 in the WBL and 10-11 overall. Van Wert is 5-3 and 14-7.

It was a battle of equally-matched top-tier WBL teams. The Cougars and the Bulldogs came into the night in a three-way tie with Shawnee for third place in the WBL. Celina will not get its 27th league championship this year, but, as always, the ‘Dogs are formidable. In fact, Van Wert has never in the history of the league finished higher than Celina in the WBL (the two teams tied in 2012 with 6-3 records), nor have the Cougars ever won a league title.

The first set was the one that got away for Van Wert. The Cougs spurted to a 15-6 lead, but then the errors started to pile up, and the visitors gradually got back into it. Celina tied it at 19 when a kill attempt by senior Emma Lutz hit the top of the net, trickled over and dropped straight down. Van Wert then got consecutive kills by sophomore Jaylyn Rickard and senior Reagan Priest to lead 21-19, but the Bulldogs battled back to tie it at 21, 22, and 23. Celina then closed it out with kills by its two senior blasters, lefty Brooke Robbins and righty Maddy Luebke — 25-23.

“The first set is an important set to win,” said Marbaugh. “We had done our job through about 4/5 of the first set; we just didn’t finish. We let ‘em come back and get us. In tight matches that first set’s always a really really important set to get on the board.”

It would be a long time before the Cougars recovered. At 4-4 in the second set Van Wert committed six straight errors to fall behind 10-4. The Cougs battled back to get within 12-11, but another slew of errors led to a 7-0 Bulldog run, and it was never close again, ending at 25-16.

In the third set, though, the Van Wert offense and defense began to click, and things got really interesting. There were five ties and three lead changes early before a serve/receive error gave the Cougars a 10-9 lead. That lead gradually grew to 21-15, but Emma Lutz, Robbins, and sophomore Maria Lutz led a 6-0 run to tie it at 21. The Dogs then out-erred the Cougs 3-1 to put the home team up 24-22, and a kill by junior Katie Coplin won it 25-22.

There was more of the same in a dandy Set 4. Van Wert led 15-9 when Luebke took charge at the net to spearhead a 7-1 run to tie it at 16. It was back-and-forth from then on. Van Wert led 23-21, but consecutive kills by Robbins tied it. A Coplin kill had the Cougars one point away, but a Luebke tip tied it at 24. Luebke made it 25-24, Dogs, but her would-be match winner sailed long. She then made it 26-25, but a Cougar dig dribbled over the net to tie it at 26. Luebke — who else? — then finished the match with two more kills — 28-26.

“We didn’t answer back really well in the second set, then we fought in the third and fought in the fourth,” added Marbaugh. “Just making some little plays here and there. I thought we did a nice job tonight as the match went on of at least answering back. Everything just went back and fourth.”

It was Senior Night in the Cougar Den, honoring seniors Priest, Adrianna Grothouse, Avery Cowan, Noelle Heffner, and Lainey Werts in their last regular season home game.