St. Xavier, the program with almost as many state championships as Walnut Hills has years played, beat the Eagles in four sets while providing a glimpse into potential tournament meetings and showing off the power Cincinnati boys volleyball has in 2021.
The Bombers, ranked No. 3 in Division I, held off the storming No. 6 Eagles 25-15, 25-20, 23-25, 25-23.
St. Xavier jumped to a quick 5-0 lead in set one and kept Walnut Hills behind easily, while in set two, the teams kept together and were tied as late as 10-10 while the Eagles cut the late Bomber lead to as close as 21-19.
In set three, neither team led by more than four points. In a fury of attacks by St. Xavier, hitting errors gave Walnut Hills a 10-7 lead over the Bombers.
"We've had a couple injuries," St. Xavier head coach Bill Ferris said of late-set struggles. "We have some guys getting back to full health so we had a handful of different lineups lately. I think we're still working through a few of those getting back to getting comfortable with each other.
"We're not always dominant for an entire match still and we're still a little bit prone to giving up a few runs here and there and I think that's what happened."
St. Xavier later took the largest lead of the set at 16-12, but the Eagles played to a 20-20 tie. Finally, a kill by 6'11" blocker Caleb Lipscomb ended the set with a Walnut Hills 25-23 victory.
The Bombers seemingly had set four and the match wrapped up early. St. Xavier jumped to a quick 20-10 lead on some blocks and serves by Henry Kastner. Just as quickly as the Bombers led, Walnut Hills went on a 12-3 run, cutting the late lead to 23-22.
A block by St. Xavier's Michael Berkemeier made the score 24-22 before Lipscomb gained the point back, making 24-23 score. The Eagles' run at a fifth set was stopped with a kill by Bomber sophomore Bentley Meyer, one of his eight kills on the night.
"Set one we played a bit nervous," Walnut Hills head coach Zac Ober said. "I think that the rest of the way we showed that we can play with the best teams in the state."
The Bombers held off the newcomers to the state ranks, but the final push by the Eagles was evidence that the race to escape Cincinnati in the regional tournament would be a tough one.
"It's true most year in Ohio volleyball, but especially true this year is that Cincinnati is so strong," Ober said. "We schedule aggressively with the (Greater Catholic League) teams. You have to beat the best if you want to be the best so we challenge ourselves and we tell our guys, 'Show other people what you got. Let people know you can compete.' Right now it reflects in the state rankings that people are seeing that Walnut Hills has a pretty solid team.
"It was a fun match here between the No. 3 team and the No. 6 team, but at the end of the day what matters really is who comes out of the regional brackets. That's the long goal for us. We wanted to play well tonight, but knowing that the end goal is still out there."
As the regional tournament approaches, it's likely Walnut Hills would need to beat St. Xavier or another GCL team to reach its ultimate goal at the state tournament. Pushing the Bombers, still the defending state champions after a canceled 2020 season, to four sets and nearly a fifth won't be as nice as a win, but points that the newcomers can hang with the powerhouses.
St. Xavier (17-4) hosts La Salle Friday before beginning the race for the regional title and an appearance at state.
Walnut Hills (13-3) dropped matches to just St. Xavier, Elder, Moeller, the state's top three teams. The Eagles host Roger Bacon for senior night on Wednesday.