NORMAL -- When is losing a state final match not such a bad thing?
How about when you were never expect to be in the state final in the first place.
Yet, that's exactly where the Cary-Grove girls volleyball team found itself Saturday night, battling favored Benet Academy for three games before the favored Redwings pulled away from a 10-10 tie in the third game with a 13-0 run to win 25-14, 22-25, 25-16.
After losing Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year Kelly Lamberti and setter Colleen Smith to graduation last June, the Trojans still had talent returning, but they also had holes to fill. Lots of holes.
Getting downstate wasn't the question at the beginning of the season. The question was could the Trojans win their own very competitive Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference.
It was not a team overly stocked with proven talent. Yes, there were the bona fide hitting studs on the roster like Ashley Rosch (Illinois State) and Melanie Jereb (Creighton) and experienced 6-foot-2 middle blocker Mallory Wilczynski, but the Trojans made it back to the bright lights of the state title match for the third straight year thanks to some lesser lights.
Middle blocker Sheila Wilhelmi was a huge contributor in the state tournament. Know where Wilhelmi plays club volleyball? Nowhere. The 6-foot-1 senior is a talented singer who excels as a performer in school musicals, her passion.
Co-captain Korey Kronforst will continue to play in college -- play soccer, that is. She has a scholarship to kick it at Division II Minnesota State.
Senior libero Nicole Schuh, who should have gotten hazard pay for trying to dig the fierce swings of Benet's Jenna Jendryk and Meghan and Maddie Haggerty, rarely played the last two seasons. She had to wait her turn behind established libero Sam Mainzer, but she played above expectations throughout the year. Schuh finished the title match with a team-best 9 digs.
Junior Alex Lerner stepped up from the JV team and contributed huge points at key moments during the Final Four. She was a JV player at midseason, added to the varsity only because another player decided to quit the team at midseason. That's the pure definition of stepping up.
And setter Jess Bartczyszyn? She spent so much time training inside a gymnasium last summer to improve it's doubtful the girl had to buy any sunblock.
Yet, somehow coach Patty Langanis and assistant coaches Ray Rugebregt, Matt Rogers and Ryan Brunswick found a way to make all the disjointed puzzle pieces fit.
When judging which of the three state title match appearances was the staff's best it would be hard to argue that winning the state championship in 2009 is anything but No. 1. However, the job the Trojan coaching staff did in 2011 was remarkable for completely different reasons. Taking second place in Class 4A when you're not supposed to only cemented the Trojans' reputation.
"If you ask anybody if they'd take a championship and two second-place trophies in three years, everyone would take it," Benet coach Brad Baker said. "Cary-Grove shouldn't be anything but proud of everything they've accomplished. They're a great program and they've shown it."
Because reaching Normal was nowhere near a given this time around, losing the title match didn't reverberate as negatively afterward as losing last year's title match did. There were a few tears, sure, but nothing like the devastation the Trojans felt after losing to Lyons when they were 41-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
"It definitely feels a lot different," said Rosch, the common thread through all three Cary-Grove Final Four teams. "I feel like last year we were expected to win and we knew we were going to win. That was all we worked for. Last year was definitely more of a heartbreak. I mean, we didn't lose a game all season so we kind of almost forgot what losing was like.
"This year we came in and we knew we weren't the best team. We knew Benet was amazing. We just had to play with heart because that's how we win."
Heads were still held high as the Trojans accepted the second-place trophy and their silver medals.
"We are more proud than we are hurt," Jereb said. "We're proud to be Cary-Grove volleyball. Most of these girls have been playing together since eighth grade. To not go to practice on Monday will be quite a shock, I think. We're trying not to think about that right now."
Fact of the matter is, Cary-Grove was playing with house money all weekend. It's hard to mourn the loss of something no one thought you'd have the chance to lose in the first place.
When the Trojans look back on 2011, they'll see that the improbable run to state etched the program's name in the history books. Cary-Grove joins Downers Grove South as the only two public schools to appear in the title match three years running.
"Nobody expected this except for us," Langanis said. "The sting is definitely there because we went three games and we knew we could battle with Benet. But the bottom line is we had to play a perfect game to beat a team like that.
"I think it will feel a lot better when the realization sets in that we've been in the state final three years in a row. It's a truly great accomplishment."
And that's not such a bad thing.