For Notre Dame to win the District 7-AA high school volleyball tournament, it was almost as though the Lady Irish needed an extra spark; some hidden advantage; maybe a secret weapon.
Enter Stephanie Bouchard.
After missing about the last half of the regular season with an injury, Bouchard returned to the court Wednesday and helped the Lady Irish win the tournament title. They defeated Signal Mountain 3-0 by set scores of 25-22, 25-20, 27-25 in the championship match.
Beforehand they beat Chattanooga Christian 3-0 by scores of 25-20, 25-13, 25-12.
Signal's Lady Eagles got to the championship match by defeating Grundy County 3-0 -- 25-15, 25-21, 25-20. Notre Dame (12-17) and Signal Mountain will move on to the Region 4 tournament early next week.
Lady Irish libero Kylie Gange made 17 digs and had five aces in the championship match after making eight digs against CCS. She was selected the tournament's most valuable player.
But Bouchard, who had three digs and three aces in the semifinal match, did more than just chip in a little against the Lady Eagles. She registered seven kills, second only to Ellen Sawyer's eight, and made 10 digs.
"She played really well for not having practiced a lot," Notre Dame coach Tyler Baldanado said. "She's one of our captains. We missed her while she was gone."
Signal Mountain coach Jennifer Redman recognized Bouchard's contributions, but she also noticed Notre Dame's will from the start of play Wednesday.
"They played hard," Redman said of the Lady Irish. "They wanted to win. From the first points against Chattanooga Christian you could see they wanted to win."
When she analyzed her own team she saw something else. She did at least acknowledge her team's response after the brief but stern talk she delivered during the timeout she called down 12-7 in the third set.
"We had too many mental and physical errors," Redman said. "We missed serves, shanked passes, didn't serve-receive well, and we were not playing to our abilities on defense.
"I'm proud of them for their fight, but still we had way too many mental and physical errors."
Before the day's play started, Baldanado said she emphasized to her team the importance of how they handled "first contact," meaning serving and receiving serves. After it was over, she was beaming about hoping to be peaking at the right time.
"This was the best we played all season," the Notre Dame coach said.
Mattie Strozak led the Lady Irish with a combined 55 assists in their victories. Sawyer had a team-high 15 kills against the Lady Chargers.
Signal Mountain's leaders on the night were Taelor Kellum with 23 kills, Laura Holland with seven blocks, Lana Bednarczyk with 36 digs and Carolynn Thielges with 46 assists. Alaina Avery served aces against Notre Dame.
Erin Jackson paced CCS (20-14) in its match with 10 kills, Hannah Stewart had 17 digs and Gracie Smith had 25 assists.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.