NORMAL — Losing teams often make their way into the media room at a state tournament in a downtrodden, somber mood.
Centennial’s Chargers brought their smiles after a three-set Class 3A semifinal loss to eight-time volleyball champion Wheaton St. Francis on Friday.
“I loved this match,” Centennial coach Stan Bergman said. “It’s the kind we want, to be challenged, to be pushed, a lot of offense, really good defense.
“I want to play another one.”
Centennial will regroup from the 21-25, 25-20, 26-24 setback to the Spartans at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena and play for third place in Saturday’s 4 p.m. match against Jacksonville.
They will do so proud of the performance they put forth in the school’s first volleyball state appearance.
“I believe we made a splash,” said Libby Cocagne, whose kill supplied the clinching 25th point in the first set. “Tomorrow, I hope they don’t underestimate us because we’ll come out ready.”
Lauren Cloyd, who had eight kills and a team-high .438 hitting efficiency, voiced a feeling that was prevalent on media row.
“St. Francis is a great team,” Cloyd said. “We were pretty much there. I think we’re the two strongest teams. We just happened to be paired up first.”
The equality of the programs was reflected by the statistics.
St. Francis amassed 44 kills. So did Centennial.
Centennial had 54 digs — including a match-high 20 from Lindsay Rogan — and St. Francis had 51 digs. The Chargers had 12 blocks. St. Francis had 10.
“It was a great match,” Bergman said. “There’s nothing for them to hold their heads about.”
Lexi Hall had 16 assists, four behind Centennial leader Maddie Weldon, who matched her season high with 20. Hall didn’t sense a feeling of awe as the Chargers played a perennial state powerhouse.
“It’s like from the movie, ‘Hoosiers,’ where they measure the height of the rim,” Hall said. “The net is the same height, and it’s the same sport we love. We played the best we could.
“We didn’t want any regrets, to say, ‘We could have done this.’ We gave it our all.”
Bergman said that made it much easier to accept the outcome and prepare for Saturday’s finale.
“It’s a good feeling to say you tried your hardest and left everything out on the floor,” Bergman said. “It’s a lot different feeling than if you got killed.”
When the 69-minute match had ended, St. Francis coach Peg Kopec knew her team dodged a bullet even though she quipped, “None of us had any doubts, did we?”
Turning serious, Kopec said, “This was such a high-caliber match. Centennial is a fabulous team. We had to play the best we could to beat them.”
All three sets started with Centennial scoring the first point. All three sets continued with St. Francis the first to reach 15 points.
The tiebreaking third set was deadlocked at 19, 21, 22, 23 and 24.
“We wish we’d won,” Hall said, “but we did play good volleyball.”
After losing the first set to an opponent she’d lost an early-season match to, St. Francis’ Mary Boken knew nothing but a supreme effort could secure the comeback.
“We were a little frantic,” said Boken, who served a match-high three aces. “We stayed aggressive, gained our composure and got the job done.”
Kopec’s teams have won a state-record 1,130 matches in her 38-year coaching career. She was as happy about Friday’s as any of them.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am,” Kopec said. “They put their big-girl pants on and came back. In the state series, most of the time, all bets are off. The season is on the line. Centennial had our attention.”
The Chargers’ offense was led by Rachel Jones (11 kills) and Kara Johnson (10 kills). Cloyd had eight kills, Cocagne and Kelsey Olion six apiece. Cloyd, Jones and Allie Shannon were all in on three blocks. Johnson had a double-double with 10 digs.
“It was exciting but disappointing,” Cocagne said. “It didn’t end the way we hoped.”
Despite an early-September win against St. Francis, Cocagne said Centennial looked at itself as the underdog.
“We felt we had nothing to lose,” she said. “We had an opportunity, and we wanted to utilize that opportunity. We didn’t look at it as our first time at state but as an opportunity to prove ourselves.”
Mission accomplished, Cocagne said.
“This one could have gone either way,” she said.
Cloyd will be proud to accept whatever medal the team earns Saturday.
“We’ve put in the hard work to get somewhere, and now we can be honored for it,” she said.