WATSEKA — It took quite a while for St. Joseph-Ogden volleyball to find a silver lining to the end of its 2018 season.
More than a calendar year, in fact.
When the Spartans entered the Watseka High School gymnasium for Wednesday’s Class 2A sectional final versus Herscher, however, they had reason to be thankful for losing to St. Thomas More on the same stage last Halloween.
“They’ve had this experience before,” SJ-O coach Abby McDonald said. “We learned that if we come in here and we’re nervous and we’re anxious and we’re afraid to lose, we will not win.”
Keeping that in mind didn’t bring out a 100 percent success rate Wednesday.
But it worked often enough to land the Spartans one win from state.
A balanced offense and bend-not-break attitude served SJ-O well as the Spartans outlasted the Tigers 25-19, 12-25, 25-23 for their second sectional plaque in four seasons.
“This is everything to us,” senior Lacey Kaiser said. “Not getting it last year made us want it 10 times more, and we’re not done yet.”
No, they aren’t.
SJ-O can secure its second state berth under McDonald — the other resulting in a runner-up 2A effort in 2016 — if the Spartans (35-4) can knock off Chicago Christian (32-5) in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. Chicago Christian Super-Sectional.
“We just had to go out and play our game and not let anybody get in our heads,” McDonald said. “For our kids to hang with it and just believe in what we’ve been telling them means so much to me as a coach.”
It was SJ-O that controlled the pace early against Herscher (32-6), which was in a sectional for the first time since 2012.
That was dictated by strong defensive play from senior Rylee Stahl (17 digs), well-placed sets from senior Emily Bigger (40 assists) and clean finishes from Kaiser (six kills) and junior Payton Vallee (11 kills).
“We really had their side questioning where our sets were going, and we just shut them down,” Kaiser said. “They didn’t have any energy like we did at the beginning of the set.”
Everything changed once the squads crossed to opposite sides of the net.
The Spartans never led in the second game, and McDonald spent both of her timeouts within the set’s first 10 points.
“We got a lot more comfortable with them,” Stahl said. “We just kind of thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to win this,’ and then it didn’t work out.”
Not so quickly, anyway.
The Tigers capitalized on numerous SJ-O errors — in attack, defense and serve — with 6-foot-2 Madison Offerman the big winner courtesy her powerful swing.
And things didn’t immediately get better for the Spartans in the decisive third set, as Herscher jumped out to a 4-0 edge.
“We let everything outside of the court get in our heads,” McDonald said. “But after that second set we just said, ‘Hey, you guys, we’ve been here before. We’ve won the first set, lost the second. What can we do in this third set to make sure we’re successful?’”
Eventually SJ-O found the answer: feed senior Katelyn Berry and sophomore Kennedi Burnett, the Spartans’ most consistent attack options all year long. Berry finished with 10 kills and Burnett contributed 17 more.
Even as SJ-O rarely trailed after going up 11-10 in the tiebreaker, the Tigers refused to enter the offseason quietly. The black and gold-clad crew staved off four consecutive match points, pulling within 24-23 as rooters in Columbia blue and maroon groaned and sweated.
“We were just telling each other to stay calm and not get too antsy out there,” Stahl said, “because once we start getting nervous, that’s when we start losing points. So we were just trying to stay calm and push through toward the end.”
It was Burnett who sealed the deal, a small swat at the far pin hitting Offerman’s outstretched hands and falling narrowly out of bounds to set off an SJ-O celebration.
“We just kept composed,” Kaiser said. “We kept our energy on our side and tried to have them shut down.”
Can the Spartans shut down one more opponent to book their trip to Normal’s Redbird Arena next week? That will be decided Friday night in Palos Heights.
McDonald has a straightforward answer to the question — another positive side effect of that painful defeat one year ago.
“It’s now or never, so let’s do that now,” McDonald said. “Everything they’ve been through ... definitely paid off.”