ST. JOSEPH — What’s happening with this year’s St. Joseph-Ogden volleyball team bears roots at junior high schools in Tolono and New Berlin.
At the former facility, the St. Joseph Middle School volleyball squad won the 2016 IESA Class 3A eighth-grade state championship.
At the latter location, the Royal Prairieview-Ogden volleyball program captured third in the same year’s Class 1A eighth-grade tournament.
In the present day, the Spartans’ IHSA state-bound roster is flush with athletes who contributed to those two IESA outcomes.
“It’s always exciting as a coach to see kids that, even at a young age, love the sport as much as you do,” said SJ-O coach Abby McDonald, who will lead the Spartans (36-4) into Friday’s noon Class 2A semifinal versus Breese Mater Dei (30-9) at Normal’s Redbird Arena.
“We knew they were going to be a special group,” McDonald continued. “Between the St. Joe group and the RP-O group, those were experiencing a lot of success.”
St. Joseph contributed Jenna Albrecht, Katelyn Berry, Emily Bigger, Rylee Stahl, Stephanie Trame and Anna Wentzloff to SJ-O’s current roster. RP-O sent Lindsey Aden, Lacey Kaiser and Kenly Taylor into the mix.
All nine are seniors and looking to cash in this weekend not only on the Spartans’ second state appearance in four years, but also one last opportunity to suit up alongside one another.
“We’re all best friends,” Trame said. “Growing up together, playing together, it’s been a fun experience, and we get to end it with the same people we started with.”
SJ-O’s return to Illinois State University — its second state berth under McDonald and third overall — is unique for Bigger.
She was the lone freshman on McDonald’s postseason roster three years ago, serving as the backup setter to Andrea Coursey. Bigger worked alongside the likes of older sister Kate, a middle hitter.
“I knew I probably wasn’t going to play because I was the underclassman of the team,” Emily Bigger said. “But I knew I had a role to be on the bench and give the girls on the court feedback on what was open (and) cheer to give them energy.”
Bigger feels her second go-round at Redbird will be better than the first, regardless of whether the Spartans can best their runner-up finish from the previous visit to state.
Mainly because she’ll be a starting member of this team and one of the key cogs that SJ-O has relied on during its current 21-match win streak.
“Emily showed at such a young age ... she had the potential to really develop and be an important role in our program,” McDonald said. “The experience she gained just from being there and being a part of that will be beneficial to us.”
Trame admits to not remembering much from the actual road to an eight-team middle school state showcase. But she believes the end result set a standard for SJ-O volleyball — before any of the nine girls had even started high school.
“Eighth grade, we were a talented group of people,” Trame said, “so when we went to state it was kind of expected that maybe we’d go far in high school.”
They’ve done just that.
Bigger and Berry hold co-captaincy titles. The former leads the crew in assists (888) and aces (54), and the latter rates second in kills with 251.
Others like Stahl (team-high 283 digs, 24 aces), Kaiser (155 kills, 145 digs, 40 aces) and Aden (126 digs, 23 aces) also boast significant statistics.
Does all of this equate to added stress on the Spartans?
McDonald hopes not. It’s something she and her assistants have urged the girls not to give in to.
Good news on that front: The senior class is leading by example.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel too much pressure,” Trame said.
“Yeah, I didn’t feel much pressure either,” Bigger added. “But we know we’re St. Joe, so everyone’s going to want to beat us each game. So we’re going to have to try as hard as we can.”
Four teams remain in the Class 2A volleyball field, and they’ll compete Friday and Saturday at Normal’s Redbird Arena for the state championship. Here’s a brief look at the squads involved, with more in-depth capsules coming later this week:
St. Joseph-Ogden (36-4) vs. Breese Mater Dei (30-9), noon
ABOUT THE SPARTANS
Last state berth: 2016.
Best state finish: Second place in 2016.
How they got here: Defeated Oakwood (2-0) and Monticello (2-0) in regional, Seneca (2-0) and Herscher (2-1) in sectional, Chicago Christian (2-1) in super-sectional.
ABOUT THE KNIGHTS
Last state berth: 2014
Best state finish: Won title in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2001, 2010 and 2011.
How they got here: Defeated Roxana (2-0) and Columbia (2-0) in regional, Freeburg (2-0) and Pinckneyville (2-0) in sectional, Fairfield (2-0) in super-sectional.
Rockford Lutheran (35-5) vs. St. Teresa (35-5), 1:30 p.m.
ABOUT THE CRUSADERS
Last state berth: None.
Best state finish: None.
How they got here: Defeated Genoa-Kingston (2-0) and Marengo (2-0) in regional, Rock Falls (2-1) and Montini (2-1) in sectional, Timothy Christian (2-0) in super-sectional.
ABOUT THE BULLDOGS
Last state berth: 2018
Best state finish: Third place in 2018
How they got here: Defeated Williamsville (2-0) and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (2-0) in regional, Quincy Notre Dame (2-0) and Tri-Valley (2-0) in sectional, Orion (2-1) in super-sectional