DANVILLE — Laura Gross came out intense.
So did her Schlarman volleyball teammates, including junior middle hitter Jordan Marganski, junior outside hitter Janelle Marion, senior outside hitter Ella Black, sophomore outside hitter Joslyn Dietzen, freshman libero Sierra Bell and freshman middle hitter Shelby Mascari.
Mixed in with the talents of Gross, a sophomore middle hitter who is a force at the net with her hitting and blocking, the Hilltoppers are superb.
The Hilltoppers overwhelmed Streator Woodland 25-18, 25-14 in the Class 1A Schlarman Sectional championship match Thursday night at Paul C. Shebby Gymnasium. The victory not only allowed the Hilltoppers (29-5) to tie their single-season record for victories and claim the program’s first sectional championship since 2006, but also advanced them into the Elite Eight.
Schlarman will square off against last year’s 1A state runner-up, Mount Pulaski, at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Woodland Super-Sectional with a trip to the state semifinals at Redbird Arena on the line.
“We’re to the point where everybody believes,” Gross said. “We just finished and played how we know we can. When we facilitate the ball to everyone (so) everybody’s hitting and everybody’s being aggressive is when we play our best volleyball.”
Paced by eight kills and six blocks by Gross, along with a boisterous student section, Schlarman only trailed twice the entire match.
“Laura was on fire,” Schlarman coach Heidi Crane said. “When she gets in that game mode, it’s difficult to stop her.”
And her teammates.
When not passing the ball to Gross, Marganski added four kills, including the clinching one in the second set to set off an uproarious celebration on the Hilltoppers’ court.
“I spent a lot of (Thursday) thinking about this game and how we were going to have to play hard because Woodland’s a good team,” Marganski said. “I’ve been wanting it all day, and that kill just made it feel even better.”
Black — the Hilltoppers’ lone senior — also contributed with timely kills and solid passing in her final match on Schlarman’s court. She had two kills midway through the second set that pushed Schlarman’s lead to 14-7.
“We told the girls Ella’s not leaving her home court without a win,” Crane said. “I couldn’t ask for something better to have only one senior on the team and go out with a successful season.”
Marion added another powerful hitting option for the Hilltoppers on the outside, while Bell supplied steady defense and passing, with Dietzen and Mascari contributing at the net.
“People generally notice the tall blondes in the middle,” Crane said with a laugh, referring to Gross and Marganski. “We’ve got firing power from every position. The back row can cover, and they’re quick. We were just on.”
Both of Schlarman’s deficits came early in the first set, but a quick 5-1 run gave Schlarman a 7-4 lead. The Hilltoppers would not let the Warriors (27-8) get closer than two points on two occasions the rest of the match.
Schlarman ripped off a 9-2 run that extended its lead to 22-11 in the first set and then withstood a 7-2 spurt by Woodland that cut its lead to 24-18 before closing out the first set.
The Hilltoppers dominated the second set. A block by Gross gave Schlarman an early 7-1 lead, and a kill by Marganski made it 16-8.
Woodland trimmed its deficit to 19-13, but Schlarman had no trouble ending the match without any dramatics. The Hilltoppers’ student section rushed the court after Marganski’s match-ending swing.
“We just fed off the crowd, fed off our feelings, went out there and played hard,” Black said. “(The student section was) so loud, and it helps us so much in our games. We just wanted it so badly. Everything was on.”