Listen to this article

WATSEKA — Abby McDonald’s St. Joseph-Ogden volleyball athletes thrive on a speedy pace of play.

It’s a significant reason they’d dropped just four sets over their last 18 matches prior to Monday’s Class 2A Watseka Sectional semifinal versus Seneca.

All Spartans victories.

And SJ-O added to that run with a 25-17, 25-11 thumping of the Irish. It just wasn’t quite as easy as the score indicated.

“We struggled early on with the tempo,” McDonald said. “Their offense was a little bit slower than what we’ve seen as of late.”

That meant sets higher into the air than what the Spartans (34-4) experienced in their two regional triumphs the week prior.

Seneca’s scheme didn’t allow for SJ-O to get quite the oomph into its attack that’s showed throughout its ongoing win streak.

Not initially, at least.

“Just the longer we played the faster we played,” McDonald said. “Our schedule really gives us the opportunity to see lots of different tempos. ... The kids were able to adjust.”

Kennedi Burnett keyed that change, according to McDonald, with the sophomore compiling 12 kills and four digs against the Irish (30-8).

Emily Bigger (18 assists, six digs) and Rylee Stahl (seven digs) also aided the Spartans, who advance to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in seven years.

Their opponent in Wednesday’s 6 p.m. sectional championship is Herscher (32-5). It’s not a team SJ-O faced in the regular season, but still is one the Spartans have past repetitions against.

“We had an opportunity to play them this summer,” McDonald said. “We played them at the Parkland Tournament, in the championship match. They played us very well.”

The stakes are a little higher this time around. And, as McDonald noted, all hands are on deck as opposed to summer vacation absences earlier in the year.

Should things work out in SJ-O’s favor Wednesday, it’ll result in the club’s first sectional crown since the Spartans’ 2016 second-place finish in Class 2A.

“They’re really motivated to just ... be a united front and stay calm, even when things aren’t going our way,” McDonald said. “They’ve done a nice job of that over the last couple weeks.”

Rockets ousted. A frequent problem cropped up again for Unity volleyball in Monday’s second Class 2A Watseka Sectional semifinal, as the Rockets dropped a 27-25, 25-21 decision to Herscher.

“We started off slow. I feel like I say that all the time, but we truly do,” Unity coach Kylie McCulley said. “They fought so hard to get back into it. By the end, I think we were just a little too late.”

Unity (32-6) was in a sectional for the first time since the Rockets’ 2008 campaign ended with a Class 2A runner-up trophy.

“We dug ourselves a hole in both sets,” McCulley said. “Both teams were equally matched. I think we definitely could’ve played a closer game.”

Unity will graduate eight players before the 2020 season begins, including leading setter Jalyn Powell and top libero Ella Godsell.

Powell finished with 14 assists and Godsell with 14 digs in their last prep bout, and fellow senior Lily Glanzer shared the team kills lead with four.

“They’re special for me because it’s the first class I had,” McCulley said. “I coached them the entire time, and they’re so talented and such great kids. They put their heart and soul into building this program.”

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).