Super Sabers

Super Sabers

NORMAL — It was as if the St. Thomas More volleyball players were a unit as all six players fell to the floor simultaneously on Saturday afternoon at Redbird Arena, just after the ball hit the floor on the state-championship point.

The season that seemed destined for a Class 2A state title from the start finished in exactly that manner with an 18-25, 25-19, 25-21 victory against Quincy Notre Dame, and tears began to flow as euphoria set in.

"It doesn't feel real," STM senior setter Hayes Murray said after the Sabers became the first Champaign County high school to win a volleyball state title in the 43 years a state tournament has been held.

Despite early struggles on Saturday, STM's talent shone through. The Sabers' athleticism was readily apparent, with four players taller than 6 feet lining the front row, towering over both teams they played at state. Two future SEC players were among them.

But it wasn't one of those players who notched the final kill. It was Brianna Hopper, a 5-8 senior.

That added to the beauty of what coach Stan Bergman and his Sabers accomplished.

It wasn't that the Sabers solely relied on Auburn signee Mica Allison nor the potential of Alabama commit Allie Trame.

Along with the seamless integration of libero Haley Elam, it was the improvement from players like Hopper and fellow 5-8 outside hitter Kayla Brandon who put the Sabers over the top after falling in the sectional semifinal with virtually the same team a year ago. Hopper admits she "shut down" in the Sabers' final match a year ago.

"Last year, (Brandon and Hopper) struggled really badly when we played St. Joe in the sectionals," Bergman said. "It's their maturity that kind of set us apart to help the middles run. We really had to look at our outsides for the maturity to step in."

Of course, that towering front line set the Sabers (39-3) apart from every team they played on their way to Saturday's win, and they helped STM control the final two sets against the Raiders (33-9). Allison led the way with 12 kills and 12 assists, while Trame added 10 kills. Lucy Lux-Rulon piled up six blocks to go with her nine kills. Murray, who allows the Sabers the flexibility to slide Allison outside, notched 22 assists and Elam registered 14 digs.

The game started off in disastrous fashion, with the Raiders reeling off a 17-4 run to take a 21-9 lead in the first set.

A year ago, STM may have folded. But Allison and the Sabers weren't concerned. Throughout the year, they've come back from deficits several times. The Sabers made a 7-1 run to work their way back into the opening set, and they trailed for just four points during the final two sets.

"I think (the start of the match) was a wakeup call," Allison said. "We've been put in that position before, and throughout the season we've been through a lot of matches like that, and it kind of prepared us for that moment. Even though it was a state championship game, we were like, 'We've got this, we'll come back.'"

As much as this state championship may have seemed pre-ordained, though, Bergman didn't envision this when he took over the program two seasons ago. At that point, he was dealt a young group with talent, ready for him to mold. They weren't polished, and they weren't necessarily close as a team. That began to change in his second season, and this year, the Sabers were dominant for nearly the entire season. Especially at the right moments.

"Last year, we finally learned to get close together, and this year, that flourished even more," Hopper said. "Being able to go on the court and say, 'Every one of these people are my best friends and I can look to them and know that they'll do what they're supposed to do,' it's hard to describe. It's so great."

As they lay on the floor in a moment of unbridled emotion, the Sabers knew that their chemistry, combined with the talent and athleticism, paid off on the biggest possible stage.

"We were just laying there (after the game) and we started crying together," Hopper said. "We were so happy in that moment. You can't describe it. Laying on the ground with everyone, it really showed that we've become a family. We worked really hard to get where we were."