CHAMPAIGN — The St. Thomas More student section decided to flirt with danger before the first serve of Thursday night’s volleyball rivalry match between their Sabers and visiting St. Joseph-Ogden.
The contingent of young men and women clad in all black let loose a very specific chant.
Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.
Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.
Yes, STM did enter the Illini Prairie Conference contest a perfect 10-0. But SJ-O stood at 9-1.
And these programs are known for engaging in thrilling back-and-forth affairs, such as the 2018 regular-season match inside the Sabers’ gymnasium that saw the Spartans recover from a first-set loss and a 24-21 third-set deficit to pull off the victory. This year’s seniors were freshmen when that transpired.
“They are who they are,” STM coach Kelly McClure said of the Sabers’ most-vocal supporters. “Every team out there right now is just experiencing a lot of joy having their groups back and their fans back in the gym.”
STM’s players got to experience additional joy throughout most of Thursday’s match.
SJ-O couldn’t slow a host of powerful Sabers hitters that was fueled by a standout setter, and McClure’s crew recorded a 25-15, 25-21 triumph against the Spartans.
To remain, as the student section pointed out, undefeated.
“(We knew) we’re going to have an emotionally-charged match, a fun atmosphere, both student sections are ready to go,” McClure said. “We just talked about staying composed and not emotionally engaging in the match. Just doing what we train and prepare for every day.”
STM (11-0, 2-0 Illini Prairie) appeared to have SJ-O (9-2, 0-1) on its back foot for an outsized portion of the first set after Spartans senior setter Becca Steinbach opened proceedings with a pair of service aces.
Sabers junior outside hitter Mallory Monahan thrived on picturesque passing from senior setter Caroline Kerr, with Monahan recording four of her match-high eight kills in the opening set and adding a block for good measure.
“She’s just taking such quality swings for us right now,” McClure said of Monahan. “She’s developed another layer of volleyball IQ that’s just allowed her to see the court, know what’s open and execute.”
SJ-O found a spark at the start of the second set and jumped out to a 6-2 lead. The Spartans eventually pulled ahead 19-15 in that set, but STM’s offense then reached another level as Monahan, Kerr, senior outside hitter Anna McClure and freshman outside hitter Shannon Monahan all contributed at least one kill apiece down the stretch.
“We just said after that first set that it was over. It’s in the books,” Kelly McClure said. “It wasn’t going to be the same the second set. ... I told them I was really proud of their composure to weather that, work back in it one point at a time and eventually just come out ahead.”
Spartans coach Abby McDonald has had to game-plan for Kerr, a Tennessee commit, during each of the last four seasons, so McDonald is well aware that Kerr is “extremely difficult to read.”
“One of our middles (Addie Roesch) is just a sophomore, and it’s a lot for her to try and read. And so We knew going into (Thursday) that our defense was going to have to communicate more than typically they’re required to do,” McDonald said. “Our middles and our blockers in general did a great job of getting there and reading her, but they’re tough, and we expected that.”
Kerr compiled 21 assists of varying origin, flying across the front of the net to send the ball forward, backward and straight overhead.
And if one of her hitters put down a kill, Kerr was glad to share a chest bump in the immediate aftermath.
“She just loves this. She lives for this,” Kelly McClure said. “She’s going to be going on to a bigger school next year and college, but high school volleyball is special and something you always remember.”
Senior libero and Illinois-Chicago commit College Hege kept things locked down defensively for the Sabers with her patented sprawl-all-over technique, aided by seven digs from Shannon Monahan.
And then there was Ohio State pledge Anna McClure, playing in her eighth match of the season. She missed the entire 2021 spring campaign and the first three matches this season after recovering from two ankle surgeries.
The younger McClure used a mix of her typical power and some mid-air craftiness to secure six kills on the night.
“It’s been awesome to see her back on the court,” said Kelly McClure, Anna’s mother. “She just keeps making steps and strides toward that full recovery.”
SJ-O was led offensively by senior outside hitter Kennedi Burnett’s five kills and three aces, Roesch’s three kills, Steinbach’s 12 assists and senior middle Ashley Eldridge’s three kills. Two of Burnett’s aces came in the second set’s first three points to provide the Spartans a shot in the arm.
Burnett chipped in five digs defensively to go with Eldridge’s two blocks and senior libero Hannah Fox’s four digs.
“We knew defense would have to win this ballgame, and so there was some hesitation in our defense,” McDonald said. “We had more serve-receive errors than we typically do.”
This marked the first time this season that the Spartans fell in straight sets. Their other loss was in a three-set event versus Champaign Central.
Even though Thursday’s meeting was of the Illini Prairie variety, McDonald didn’t sound at all worried with more than half of the season still on the docket.
“We don’t put a lot of emphasis on matches at this point in our season,” McDonald said. “That’s been our focus since the beginning, so we told them just to relax, go out and play and learn something. ... We can take a lot away from this to make ourselves better the next time we take the court.”