Watseka volleyball earns signature win

Watseka volleyball earns signature win

WATSEKA — At issue is not whether Watseka’s volleyball team is good. The question is, “How good?”

Answers were forthcoming Thursday night. Backed by a spirited, towel-waving student section, Watseka rallied from a one-set deficit to defeat St. Thomas More.

The Warriors’ 16-25, 29-27, 25-20 win was the 18th in a row for coach Krista Pufahl’s team to open the season.

“Huge,” Pufahl said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. I wonder how much respect and recognition we get. This makes a nice statement.”

Watseka had help in settling the outcome.

“The fans gave us momentum,” Taylor Bauer said. “They definitely got the game more energized.”

St. Thomas More coach Brad Dalton hoped for a strong second set by his Sabers to reduce the spectators’ impact.

“Once you give the home team with a crowd momentum, you’re fighting an uphill battle,” Dalton said.

After a second set in which neither team scored more than three points in a row, the Sabers and Warriors endured 10 ties by the time the third-set score reached 17-17.

Watseka’s edge down the stretch was Lexi Shoemaker, Hayley Gray and Bauer with solo blocks, accounting for three of the Warriors’ final eight points.

“We keyed in on where they were going with the ball,” Pufahl said.

“We were big at the net and that fueled our offense,” Bauer added.

STM relied on All-Area standout Lexi Wallen, who delivered a match-high 20 kills. The remaining Sabers had 16 but only two in the decisive final set.

“We got complacent with our passing,” Dalton said. “When you’re predictable against a good team, you will get blocked.”

Juniors Wallen and Bauer — each of whom wear No. 7 — entered the match as the two area leaders in kills. Bauer led the Warriors with nine kills and had four aces.

She picked her spots to shine. She served two aces for the last two points of the second set. In the third set, her kills accounted for her team’s final two points.

After the team fell behind early, Bauer said the key was “to keep our composure.”

Even though the Warriors have made two Elite Eight appearances in a row, Bauer said, “We’re trying to make a name and let people know who we are.”

In a three-day span this week, Watseka toppled Sangamon Valley Conference heavyweights St. Joseph-Ogden and St. Thomas More.

Dalton’s Sabers were at less than full strength but weren’t as short-handed as he feared Wednesday, when four players were sick and missed practice. Only 6-foot-4 sophomore Tori McCoy was unable to play.

“Tori is one of the best athletes in the country, but our supporting cast is good,” Dalton said.

“Courtney Wax was special (Thursday night), and Liz Bristow played a heck of a match. Lexi did what she normally does.”

Bristow had nine kills. Allie Kreie had three aces. Wax had two blocks.

For Watseka, Shoemaker had six kills, Gray had five kills and three blocks, Emily Allhands had three kills and three blocks, and libero Natalie Castonguay had 18 digs.

“They’re big and athletic,” Dalton said. “That’s a good-coached team.”