They’re on a collision course

They’re on a collision course

MAHOMET — With the Illinois High School Association's move from location-based regionals to subsectionals that sometimes separate teams from their local rivals, it's not always a guarantee that teams will be familiar with their playoff opponents.

The Class 3A Champaign Central regional, though, is about as regional as they come.

If it beats Unity in a regional semifinal match, Mahomet-Seymour will likely move on to play Champaign Central, a team the Bulldogs have beaten twice in three meetings this season. Urbana and Rantoul are also in the regional, and meet in the regional quarterfinal on Oct. 23. The Tigers have already knocked off Central this season, but the potential for a fourth meeting between M-S and the Maroons exists.

"There's a lot of mental toughness that has to be there because of playing a team so many times," M-S coach Stacey Buzicky said.

"We've been playing Central for a long time, we know their program, we know a lot of the girls because their girls and our girls play club volleyball together, so there's always that rivalry between the girls. ... I think that the thing that's really interesting about our two teams is because we know each other so well and we know each other's players so well, it's just that strategy of knowing how to block them, knowing how to play defense and be really effective in our serving and just being strong in our serve-receive."

Of course, the Bulldogs will have to beat the Rockets first on Oct. 24 at Combes Gym. M-S upended Unity in three sets earlier this season, but Buzicky said she expects the Rockets to be even stronger when the teams meet in two weeks.

Buzicky, though, has seen a team light on seniors develop into a group that plays well when it's most important. Heading into an evenly-matched regional, that could wind up being crucial.

"I think the thing that stands out the most about this young group is their desire to win and the fact that they never stop competing on the court," Buzicky said. "They don't give up. And so we've had a lot of matches this season go three sets and the girls just keep battling until we win. I'm really impressed with their control and their confidence under pressure."

Sabers sharpen mental edge

Painful as it may be, St. Thomas More coach Stan Bergman has gone back and watched the tape of last season's three-set Class 2A sectional semifinal loss to St. Joseph-Ogden multiple times. And multiple times, he's identified the reason his team fell short.

From a mental maturity standpoint, he said, a highly experienced SJ-O team that wound up finishing second in 2A had a huge edge over the Sabers, which featured a lineup full of underclassmen.

"I've gone back and watched that match a couple of times, and the maturity level was definitely there (from St. Joseph-Ogden)," Bergman said. "That's where we fell a little bit short last year was that fun and that mental aspect of it, and I feel this year the girls have matured a lot and they can kind of see the benefits of that mental maturity."

Featuring two players committed to SEC schools in senior setter/hitter Mica Allison (Auburn) and sophomore hitter Allie Trame (Alabama), Bergman's team has the talent to succeed, particularly when it's in-system. As his team prepares for the 2A Monticello regional, which features SJ-O, he's tried to incorporate that into practice, working on the types of plays that aren't necessarily a part of his team's planned offense.

"I try really hard to push them with the drills that we do to incorporate a little bit of mental training," he said. "It's more or less the out-of-system balls. If the pass isn't quite perfect and the setter's scrambling around a little bit to try to do something with it or the setter had to take the ball or the ball came off of the block and you're running or basically scrambling and trying to figure out what to do with it. Being able to better that contact that they're making to where we can get up and try to make a swing on it."

This year, Bergman feels like his team is more equipped to deal with that postseason pressure, even as they try to improve over the final few weeks of the regular season.

"I feel like we're still searching for a little bit of identity and consistency with our offense," he said, "and yeah, at this point I feel pretty good and confident that the girls will try to work hard and see the cards fall wherever they're going to fall."

Timberwolves are on a roll

CISSNA PARK — Cissna Park coach Josh Landon knew his front line wouldn't be the tallest in the area this season, and their athleticism, he knew, would be overmatched at certain points. But he was still optimistic that the Timberwolves could produce another special season.

"We thought that this team had the chance to be another one of those teams that had special promise, so to speak," Landon said. "We were going to be lacking in height but we felt like we could make up for that with kind of that scrappy attitude. So far we've been able to do that."

That attitude starts right at the top for the Timberwolves, who will head to the Class 1A Gardner-South Wilmington Regional.

Returning News-Gazette All-Area First Team selection Gabby Wessels is only 5 feet, 8 inches, but the four-year starter who played for teams that finished third and second in Class 1A her freshman and sophomore years, respectively, is one of the top hitters in the area.

"She's always been that explosive player," Landon said. "You can never really teach the hustle that she brings to the table. Her intelligence in terms of knowing what the other teams are trying to do against her, seeing where the blockers are lining up, learning more so this year from playing the back row and seeing what the opposing defense is doing when our second outside hitter is attacking. I think that's the aspect that's gotten better and made her a better player this year."

On a team that returned its entire starting lineup this year, including setter Anna Jennings, hitter Erica Walder and middle Sloan Boyce, Wessels' attitude has helped mold the team into one that Landon hopes can make a deep postseason run.

"She knows what it takes as far as the dedication in practice and preparing for that match," Landon said. "She's a leader by example, she tries to be that vocal leader, really boost the enthusiasm of the team, get them fired up in warmups even." When you have that so-called best player be the one that's working hard all season in the weight room and asking for another 20 to 30 more balls to hit, she kind of sets the table for everybody else. The other girls have followed in that aspect."