ST. JOSEPH — Volleyball liberos tend to stand out regardless of their successes or failures.
Donning a different-colored jersey than the rest of their teammates assures that.
Rylee Stahl made an impression in Wednesday night’s Class 2A Watseka Sectional final against Herscher because she seemed to be everywhere at once.
The St. Joseph-Ogden libero flung herself left and right, forward and backward to get at least one hand on any of the Tigers’ kill attempts.
It amounted to 17 digs in the Spartans’ three-set victory over Herscher, putting them in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. 2A Chicago Christian Super-Sectional versus the host Knights (32-5).
“It’s a lot of reading,” said Stahl, one of several key seniors the Spartans rely on. “A lot of staying focused in the game and just watching what the hitter’s going to do.”
One aspect supporters of SJ-O (35-4) likely couldn’t sense in Stahl’s latest performance was a nervous vibe.
According to Spartans coach Abby McDonald, it’s something that’s often accompanied in Stahl in her first and only year as SJ-O’s libero.
“We just kind of talked about it and what her expectations were,” McDonald said, “... and what she could really do for us, and everything was just very relaxed.”
“I felt a lot better (Wednesday) because I already played here once, for the first round of sectionals,” Stahl said. “So I was a lot calmer coming in.”
Stahl’s anxiety isn’t born entirely from being a starter on a squad one win from its second state semifinals appearance in four seasons.
Some of it is associated with who she snagged her white No. 5 jersey from in the offseason.
Bree Trimble was a 2018 News-Gazette All-Area first-team selection as a senior and set the tone defensively as SJ-O rolled to a sectional final.
Now a Parkland women’s basketball player, Trimble was a key member during the Spartans volleyball’s 2016 2A state runner-up campaign, compiling 188 digs on the year as a sophomore.
“Bree was a very successful libero,” Stahl said. “So it was very hard to try and come in, fill her shoes.”
Those last three words were echoed by McDonald when discussing the Trimble-to-Stahl transition.
And the 11th-year SJ-O coach is impressed with what she’s seen.
“Rylee worked really hard in the offseason,” McDonald said. “She has developed over the course of even the season, from the beginning until now.”
One of Stahl’s biggest points of emphasis early on was trying to put her own spin on aspects of the libero position beyond playing stout defense.
“Bree was a very big leader on the court,” Stahl said, “and she was very energetic when she was on the court, too. So it was very important for me to come in, fill that role.”
From a gameplay standpoint, though, Stahl’s ability to keep the ball off the hardwood is one of the biggest reasons for SJ-O’s current 20-match win streak.
“We play our best when our defense is on,” McDonald said. “Defense wins ballgames, and that’s something that we always preach to these kids.”
If Stahl and her cohorts can stall enough of Chicago Christian’s attack bids Friday night, they are only two wins away from capturing the program’s first state title.
What are the chances Stahl might be a tinge nervous should the Spartans suit up at Normal’s Redbird Arena next weekend for the state tournament?
“It’s going to be hard (not to be),” Stahl said with a smile, “but we’re going to try to stay calm.”
St. Joseph-Ogden and Milford each sit one victory from a state semifinals date next week at Normal’s Redbird Arena. Here’s a look at what’s at stake in Friday night’s super-sectionals:
CLASS 2A CHICAGO CHRISTIAN SUPER-SECTIONAL
Who: St. Joseph-Ogden (35-4) vs. Chicago Christian (32-5)
When: 6:30 p.m.
Where: Chicago Christian High School, Palos Heights
History: Spartans last won a super-sectional in 2016 (finished second in Class 2A); Knights last won a super-sectional in 2011 (finished second in Class 2A).
Up next: Winner faces either Fairfield (37-2) or Breese Mater Dei (31-9) in state semifinal, noon Nov. 15
CLASS 1A MIDLAND SUPER-SECTIONAL
Who: Milford (30-4-1) vs. Illini Bluffs (38-1)
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Midland High School, Varna
History: Bearcats and Tigers are in first super-sectional.
Up next: Winner faces either Norris City-Omaha-Enfield (36-2) or Altamont (31-7-1) in state semifinal, 10:30 a.m. Nov. 15