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CHAMPAIGN — The Illini Prairie Conference is chock full of highly successful prep volleyball programs.

The two best at this point in the season squared off Thursday night.

Host St. Thomas More had dropped three sets across 22 matches. Unity had lost five sets through 24 matches. Both clubs had lost just one match — each in three sets — and neither squad possessed a blemish on its conference record.

Something had to give.

“Two strong programs like this are going to continue to get better along the way,” Sabers coach Kelly McClure said. “We knew this was going to be just a dogfight, and it was. It was just a fun, fun match, and this is what high school matches are supposed to be about.”

The match’s outcome was a bit more fun for STM.

The Sabers overcame an early deficit to collect an 18-25, 25-18, 25-15 victory versus the Rockets, winning their 10th consecutive match in the process.

“One of our goals this year was to win conference, and one of our goals was to protect our home court,” STM senior setter Caroline Kerr said. “This is what we wanted to do, no matter who we’re playing (or) when we’re playing, because we knew the conference title may be on the line.”

The Sabers (22-1, 8-0 Illini Prairie) now are on the fast track to that honor with just two league matches remaining.

Kerr was a significant reason why. The Tennessee commit racked up 24 assists to go with eight kills, nine digs, two aces and one block.

She completely took control of the showcase following a second-set Unity timeout with STM leading 21-18. Kerr finished three kills on three consecutive points, and an attack error by the Rockets (23-2, 5-1) closed out the set one point later.

“They had me shut down for a while, so it was frustrating,” Kerr said. “But the opportunities were there, and so to be able to have those scores, I think it really put a pause to their defense. They had to second-guess what they were doing.”

Unity wasn’t second-guessing much in the first set. After the Sabers rushed out to a 3-0 lead, the Rockets responded by taking 18 of the next 27 points and inducing both of STM’s timeouts for that set.

Senior outside hitters Macie Knudsen (three kills, three aces) and Emma Bleecher (two kills) and sophomore outside hitter Katey Moore (two kills) especially thrived in Unity’s opening-set success.

“We handled (the Sabers) well in the first set, and then for some reason, our mind just wasn’t in it to stay focused in sets two and three,” Rockets coach Erika Yerry said. “Our serve-receive broke down. Defensively, we weren’t as aggressive. And they’re a really strong team, especially their setter.”

Kerr wasn’t able to feed senior outside hitter Anna McClure, who was sidelined with an injury, but still found plenty of other hitting options during the evening.

Two of Kerr’s favorites were the Monahan sisters — junior outside hitter Mallory and freshman outside hitter Shannon. The elder Monahan tallied 11 kills on top of 12 digs, and the younger Monahan boasted nine kills to go with seven digs.

“One night it’s Mallory, one night it’s Shannon and (Thursday night) they were both on,” Kelly McClure said. “That’s just magic when both of them are on. ... (Shannon is) just beginning to know herself and be comfortable in her role and take big swings when she needs to, and then keep balls in play when she needs to do that.”

The decisive third set took on a far different look from either of the previous two, as STM dashed out to a 14-3 advantage that included no attack points for Unity. By the time the Rockets found their footing, it was far too late to catch up with the Sabers.

Bleecher recorded a 12-kill, 18-dig double-double, Knudsen finished with seven kills and senior middle Payton Kaiser chipped in four kills. Unity also received 18 assists from senior setter Maddie Reed and 15 digs from senior libero Taylor Henry on the same day that the Rockets learned they’d received a No. 1 seed in the IHSA Class 2A postseason.

“(Thursday night’s match) prepares us for the rest of the season, because we’re playing better teams,” Yerry said. “It’s nice to play some good competition and then see where we stand.”

Junior middle Erin Henkel produced five kills for the Sabers, whose defense was paced by senior libero Colleen Hege’s 28 digs.

STM also has garnered a No. 1 playoff seed — but in the Class 1A field. It’s an odd sight, considering the Sabers have captured a Class 2A state championship, a 2A third-place trophy, eight 2A regional plaques and even a 3A regional title in the previous 13 years.

Kerr and her teammates certainly have more state hardware on their minds as well.

“Redbird’s a loud place, and so that’s obviously where we’re hoping to be,” said Kerr, referencing Redbird Arena — home of IHSA state volleyball.

“We’re happy to be able to play a great team in our conference and have that experience just before postseason,” Kerr continued. “Unity’s a great team, and just to be able to play them in our own gym is awesome.”

Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

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

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