NORMAL — It was clear Friday afternoon that members of the St. Joseph-Ogden volleyball program were upset.
The Spartans had come so close to playing for a Class 2A state championship. So close to knocking off Breese Mater Dei.
Instead, they were left distraught and preparing for Saturday’s third-place showcase with Rockford Lutheran.
That lingered for a while immediately after the semifinal loss. So SJ-O coach Abby McDonald spent the following hours putting the past where it belonged.
“We spent all night watching volleyball and eating pizza and dancing,” McDonald said, “kind of getting back to ourselves.”
The Spartans achieved the same in their play, outlasting the Crusaders 25-11, 20-25, 25-23 on Saturday to cap their year with a winning performance.
“As successful as they were all season long ... I don’t think there’s any better way to end the season with these kids,” McDonald said. “The way they fought in this final match depicts who they are and what they’ve done this season.”
SJ-O (37-5) re-entered Illinois State’s Redbird Arena on Saturday with a revitalized mindset to take on Rockford Lutheran (35-7).
That showed as the Spartans pulled ahead as far as 20-9 in the opening game and never let the Crusaders sniff momentum.
“Our kids were fired up and ready to play again,” McDonald said. “Everything about our game was really on. I don’t think we could’ve played any better in the first set.”
McDonald wasn’t all that disappointed with her kids’ work in the second set, either.
But Rockford Lutheran set the tone with the first five points to put SJ-O in its fourth consecutive full-length match.
“We were thinking more about the fact this was our last match and not really being focused on getting the win,” McDonald said. “We tried keeping it calm, keeping it as light as we could.”
The Spartans led most of the final stanza, although the Crusaders picked up three late one-point edges.
Two of Kennedi Burnett’s team-leading 14 kills came over the final five points as SJ-O ultimately prevailed.
Katelyn Berry (six kills), Emily Bigger (29 assists) and Rylee Stahl (14 digs) also came up with key contributions for the Spartans to offset Lauren Spangler’s 15 kills and Kylie Wilhelmi’s 13 kills for Rockford Lutheran.
McDonald now must part ways with a nine-member senior class that keyed the second-best result in team history.
“I can’t express just how much they mean to me, not only as a coach,” McDonald said, “but also as a person. They’re part of my family forever.”