CHAMPAIGN – St. Thomas More's five volleyball-playing seniors were recognized prior to Thursday night's match that determined the Sangamon Valley Conference title.
Junior Becca Millage earned her recognition once play began. She powered a match-high seven kills and served aces on five consecutive second-set serves to spark the Sabers to a 25-15, 25-12 sweep against St. Joseph-Ogden, which owned a two-set win against STM.
"This is the best match we've ever played," Millage said.
It showed. St. Thomas More never trailed against its 20-win rival and zipped to a 7-1 first-set lead and a 12-1 second-set cushion.
"I was not expecting that," said STM coach Erika Tock, whose squad is three victories away from matching last year's school-record total for single-season wins (28). "We had a tough practice (Wednesday). Mentally, we were not there. It was only the second practice all season that was not up to my standards."
The Sabers came ready against the Spartans and controlled every facet of play. STM held a 25-7 edge in kills, a 12-1 advantage in aces and a 9-5 cushion in blocks. Tock saw another advantage that wasn't revealed on the stat sheets.
"We had an amazing fan section, and that really fueled our girls," she said.
More than 1,100 spectators were at the gym.
The Sabers benefited from their previous two-set loss to SJ-O. "They caught us by surprise," Tock said. "We analyzed what they did and how to deal with it."
One tactic was for senior setter Erin Wachtel (16 assists) to not be predictable on where she'd send the ball. Behind Millage was a balanced offensive attack with sophomore Megan Casagrande getting five kills, senior Jenna Einck four, senior Maggie Fitzgerald four and senior Morgan Buerkett three. Jenna Einck (nine) and senior Brittany Einck (six) led in digs.
"It's starting to click," Tock said.
SJ-O has hopes of meeting the Sabers twice more before the season ends. They could meet in next week's SVC tournament and again in the Class 2A regional that STM will host.
"If we had to lose to them, now is the one," SJ-O's Abby Kuntz said. "We couldn't have played worse. I hope we see them two more times."
Janna Buck had five assists and Rachael Graham five digs for SJ-O. Shelby Geers had four blocks, and Bria Olson led with three kills.
St. Thomas More finished 8-0 in SVC matches. Watseka was 7-1, and SJ-O ended 6-2.