Sabers fall short in their bid to repeat as state champions

Sabers fall short in their bid to repeat as state champions

NORMAL — Deja vu washed over St. Thomas More volleyball in two waves Friday afternoon.

The first arrived when the Sabers dropped the opening set of their Class 2A state semifinal match with Pleasant Plains at Redbird Arena. The outcome mimicked STM's start to last year's state championship match, in which it fell behind Quincy Notre Dame after a game.

"We just knew we had to regroup," Sabers coach Stan Bergman said. "We knew we had to pass better and hit better."

And so STM did.

Its serve-receive game improved. The passing clicked with more frequency. The three-headed attack of senior Kayla Brandon, junior Allie Trame and freshman Anna McClure hammered away at the Cardinals' block.

All told, this brought the Sabers within a single point of advancing to their second consecutive title tilt.

Then, that second wave of deja vu.

Back in September, STM watched rival St. Joseph-Ogden net the final five points to douse the Sabers 26-24 in a decisive third set.

Roughly two months later, Plains dealt STM a similar blow.

Kills from junior Anna Kanllakan and senior Allie Edwards, sandwiched between a service ace from junior MacKenzie Houser, helped the Cardinals rattle off the last three points to earn a 25-22, 15-25, 26-24 triumph and end the Sabers' repeat state championship bid.

"I think if we were to replay the last five points again, we probably would've won. If we played it again after that, they would've won," Bergman said. "And if we played it again, we would've won. I think it was ... really a battle toward the end of the match, and (the winner) was going to be the team that was swinging the most and the one that made the fewest errors."

STM (36-5) actually recorded fewer attack miscues than Pleasant Plains (33-6) and more than doubled the Cardinals' kill success rate across all three sets.

But it was the first-time state qualifier standing tall when all was said and done.

"My blood pressure is definitely up there," Pleasant Plains coach Denise Dufour said. "I just can't even believe the level that those girls rose to."

Before a thrilling last set in which the sides traded points from scores of 20-20 score through 24-24, the Sabers had to work through some kinks in their offense.

"I think the first set, it was just a lot of nerves and it was kind of hard-to-control things," Trame said.

Dufour had her athletes challenge STM's serve-receive abilities. The result — at least early on — was the Sabers sprinting around the hardwood trying to make something out of nothing.

"We have hung our hat on having a good pass rating all season," Bergman said. "We've had teams try to do that all season. Just on this stage, it kind of was one of those situations where we didn't control it as well as we've done in the past."

That changed in the second set, when Brandon and Trame combined for seven kills and McClure tossed in a stretch of three across the final nine points.

"The first set, I was really nervous," McClure said. "But as it went on, I learned to block out the crowd and block out how big the gym was and just play."

That left each squad's fate to a heavyweight fight in the third game.

The biggest edge for either group was four points, and once the large video board hanging over the court listed a 20 on each side, it was a dash to the finish.

Brandon posted two of her team-best 12 kills in that time, and Trame contributed one of her 11. The Cardinals refused to yield, though.

"Just didn't finish," Bergman said.

"It does (stink) that we weren't able to come out with the win," Brandon added. "When we went into the second set, our mentality was, 'All right, we have nothing to lose. Let's just play hard.' And we weren't going to go down without a hard fight."

STM draws Nashville (32-9) in today's 2A third-place event, slated for 12:25 p.m. The stakes won't be quite as high for the Sabers as they were at this time last season, but some smiles still shone through after the loss to Pleasant Plains.

Bergman's girls are going to enjoy this moment, no matter which trophy they bring back to Champaign.

"Yeah, we didn't get into the championship like we wanted," said Haley Elam, STM's senior libero who finished with a match-high 20 digs. "But ... we're still in it to win it. The fact that we're here is a big deal, because not a lot of teams get to experience one year, but especially two years in a row."