PALOS HEIGHTS — It’s been a busy week for St. Joseph-Ogden volleyball.
Sectional semifinal match Monday. Sectional championship bout Wednesday. Super-sectional tilt Friday, about two hours away from the group’s high school.
So coach Abby McDonald’s Spartans had a reasonable question after winning the Class 2A Chicago Christian Super-Sectional.
“They asked right away, ‘Do we have practice (Saturday)?’” McDonald said. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’
“We’re going to take a couple days to soak all this in.”
It’s only fair to utilize that approach after SJ-O rallied past Chicago Christian 15-25, 25-23, 25-16 to earn the third state tournament berth in program history.
“It means so much to us,” Spartans senior Katelyn Berry said. “We’ve been waiting this entire season for this moment.”
It was a moment that left McDonald in tears as her girls accepted and celebrated with their super-sectional trophy.
“As good of volleyball player as they are, they’re even better kids,” said McDonald, who oversaw SJ-O’s 2016 state semifinals appearance. “There are so many great teams and coaches that never got that (state) opportunity.”
It certainly wasn’t easy for the Spartans (36-4) to set aside the Knights (32-6). Not with Chicago Christian on its home hardwood.
And not after an attack led by Knights senior Lia Moore had SJ-O scrambling for answers in the opening game.
“We had our fans there, and they helped us a lot,” Berry said. “We just tried to focus on what was happening on the court and not focus on what was happening outside the court.”
At the same time, Chicago Christian simply wasn’t making many mistakes in any facet of the game.
“They were definitely running on all cylinders in the first set,” McDonald said. “We were caught on our heels. Just the pace and how fast it was going, we had a hard time adjusting.”
The Spartans never led in the opening game, and they didn’t pull ahead in the second round until possessing a 10-9 advantage.
McDonald felt Stephanie Trame and Lacey Kaiser showed up in a big way during the middle set, helping SJ-O to stay “confident and poised” while holding the knowledge one bad stretch could end its season.
An altered offensive approach also paid dividends for the Spartans.
“We realized we didn’t have to hit the ball down every single time,” Berry said. “They had a big block, and they were running a defense that left the middle of the court open.”
Six-foot-1 Logan Grevengoed and 5-11 Delanie Grevengoed were the usual suspects on the block for the Knights.
“We knew they were going to oversize us by quite a bit,” McDonald said. “Our hope was, based on the perimeter defense we knew they ran, we could find some spots open in their defense. We thought we could attack the seam or find a way to slow down the blocks to open the net for us.”
As SJ-O extended the match and established multiple attack choices — Berry, Trame, Kaiser, Kennedi Burnett and Payton Vallee — those bigger opposing athletes became less dangerous.
“We were able to hold their middle blocker a little bit longer,” McDonald said. “Once we went up, we really got into the heads of our opponent.”
Chicago Christian put forth a feisty effort to end the contest early, holding off set point three times in the second game.
The Spartans closed the door on a Knights serve that went just long. It set the stage for, based on what occurred in the second set, a wild battle to the finish line.
Instead, SJ-O largely dominated the tiebreaker.
After Chicago Christian produced four consecutive points to snag a 5-4 edge, the Spartans scored five points in a row to force a Knights timeout.
And seemingly swing the momentum in SJ-O’s favor for the rest of the night.
“Honestly, not at all,” said Berry about her expectation of a lopsided third set. “They did come back a little bit in the second set, toward the end. I thought it was going to be a fight in the third set.”
As in the sectional final versus Herscher, libero Rylee Stahl cleaned up defensively and setter Emily Bigger expertly fed her numerous hitters when the Spartans needed both of those elements most.
Though she didn’t play in either state match, Bigger actually is the lone SJ-O player who can lay claim to being on both the 2016 state roster and this year’s unit.
“We learned the first time around just how unique and special it is (to be at state),” McDonald said. “We’re going to enjoy every single second of this weekend and (next) week.”
There’s still business at hand, of course.
The Spartans’ next foe is Breese Mater Dei (32-9), which exploded past Fairfield 25-11, 25-8 in another of Friday’s 2A super-sectionals.
These state semifinalists will square off at approximately noon inside Normal’s Redbird Arena, on the campus of Illinois State University.
The Mater Dei Knights have a bevy of success at this level, boasting seven state titles. The last of those came under current coach Chad Rakers in 2011, in Class 3A.
Based on what SJ-O has accomplished so far in 2019, those facts won’t strike fear into the Spartans.
“It’s going to mean the world to us (to play at Redbird),” Berry said. “We’re so excited and ready to prepare this week for this opportunity.”
Milford fall in super-sectional
VARNA — Milford volleyball’s historic campaign came to an end Friday night, as the Bearcats fell to Illini Bluffs 25-22, 25-20 at the Class 1A Midland Super-Sectional.
Milford never before had been to this stage in the IHSA postseason and finishes its season with a 30-5-1 ledger.
Caley Mowrey paced the Bearcats’ attack with seven kills while adding three blocks. Also aiding Milford were Kaylee Warren (14 assists) and Jakki Mowrey (10 digs).
Hilltoppers ousted from playoffs. Rance Bryant caught a pair of touchdown passes, but sixth-seeded Schlarman football suffered a 42-20 loss to third-seeded River Ridge in Friday’s quarterfinal round of the 8-Man Association playoffs, at Hanover.
Caleb Rhodes dashed for four touchdowns for River Ridge to stifle the Hilltoppers, who ended their first year of 8-man football with a 7-4 record.