TOLONO — It will be experience against youth.
It will be the best team in one school’s history against an opponent whose best days are in the future.
It will be Paxton-Buckley-Loda playing St. Thomas More on Thursday in the Class 2A regional volleyball championship match at Unity’s Rocket Center.
Each school secured its berth in the finals with two-set semifinal sweeps Tuesday. PBL, which starts five seniors, ousted Unity’s Rockets 25-14, 25-14. St. Thomas More, with no senior starters, broke a 1-1 season tie with St. Joseph-Ogden by upending the Spartans 25-18, 25-12.
Thursday’s title match will start at 6 p.m.
PBL sets record
The Panthers’ win was their 25th this season, breaking a record set by the 2001 squad for the most in a season. PBL advanced thanks to an attack that featured at least one kill from each of its six starters in Game 2.
“We were prepared and ready to go at it,” Kailey Kleinert said. “We are all connecting with our setter (Kayla Cowan).”
Coach Kristin Oyer had a conference with Cowan before the team bus left Paxton.
“We discussed where we needed to get the ball,” Oyer said. “We knew we had to get a quick tempo going.”
Kleinert was the go-to person at the start of each set. In the opener, PBL went up 3-1 with Kleinert supplying all three Panther points on kills. A 2-2 second-set tie was courtesy of two kills from Kleinert.
She totaled nine kills overall, matching teammate Kandace Hofer for the match-leading total.
Kleinert and the Panthers kept swinging, even if an occasional hit went out of bounds.
“We look to kill it every time,” Kleinert said. “When I was in Prime Time (club), they emphasized, ‘Go for it. Don’t go soft.’ ”
Senior Kaylee Genzel, whose status was questionable earlier in the day, served an ace to push PBL to match point, 24-14, in Game 2.
“She got a cut on her (non-serving) hand in art and had to get seven stitches,” Oyer said.
Genzel, who put all of her serves in play, served a match-high 17 points. Cowan had 25 assists and Jori Maynard nine digs for the
Panthers (25-5). Unity (10-24) was led by McKenzie Martin with three kills and two blocks.
Sabers hitting stride
With only one experienced varsity player returning (Lexi Wallen) this season, Brad Dalton experimented with lineups and combinations the first half of the season.
“The last three weeks we’ve been trying to get the chemistry going,” Dalton said. “We switched to a solo setter (Hannah Murray) and we’ve taken off.”
The Sabers finished with a flourish while reaching the 20-win mark for the seventh time in the last eight years. Trailing 11-9 in the final set, a kill by Louisette Lukusa started an abrupt switch in momentum. STM scored 16 of the next 17 points — four on aces by Wallen — and secured its advancement on a kill by Regan Kelley.
“This is like we’ve been playing the last few weeks,” Dalton said.
Wallen had team-high totals of nine kills and 14 digs. Lukusa had six kills and six blocks.
“My team fought for every point, went after every ball and didn’t let down,” Lukusa said. “We played to want to win. All of us wanted it.”
On Thursday, the Sabers will seek a fifth straight regional championship.
“Our goals are bigger than the regionals,” Dalton said. “I hope we bring it on Thursday and move on. This group doesn’t want to be the first in five years to lose it.”
The loss closed a stellar season for SJ-O (22-8). Shelby Simmons returned to action after missing the previous 21/2 matches with a knee injury. She was less than full strength but put down a team-high five kills.
Spartans coach Abby McDonald said her team didn’t look like the one she watched throughout the season.
“From the first serve, we had that deer-in-the-headlights look,” she said.
Sydney Stone had 12 assists and two aces for SJ-O. Kenzie James led with four digs.