NORMAL -- Having fun at the state finals was the theme this weekend for the St. Charles East girls volleyball team, so it was fitting the effervescent Saints departed Redbird Arena Saturday night sporting wide grins and toting a third-place state trophy after a 25-23, 22-25, 25-21 victory over Marist.
"I'm really proud of my team right now," said Saints senior Meghan Niski, who notched a match-best 15 kills to outduel Marist junior Mallory Salis' 14. "I'm really sad that it's over, but I'm really glad to end my senior year on a winning note. It feels really good."
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The Saints kept it light all day. They started with their own downstate tradition. They bought dresses at Goodwill for the three male coaches on staff, who were then forced to wear their new fashions in public during lunch at Flat Top Grill.
The celebration continued in pregame introductions when coach Jennie Kull gave each of her players a big hug as they were introduced. It didn't stop until the Saints had earned the third-place hardware, their sixth state trophy in program history, and were giggling up a storm during the postmatch news conference.
"Right now is the reason why we will celebrate this group of girls for years to come because this is what it's like all the time," Kull said between laughs at the interview table. "This is a family, and we've been blessed. You saw me smiling at the beginning of the weekend. The reason I was smiling was because we got to have time together again this whole weekend."
The Saints trailed 15-10 in Game 1 until kills by middles Nichole Lambert and Kathleen Dailey ignited a 9-2 run that was capped by a service ace from Nicole Woods.
Marist pulled within 24-23 on a tip kill by Ashley Holder and a directional kill by Marcinek. But after a timeout, Erienne Barry set a fat one for Niski, who made a determined approach to the net and angled a spike just to the right of a double block to seal the Game 1 win for the Saints.
St. Charles East (35-7) held a 20-19 lead in the second game, but Marist (35-6) won 6 of the next 7 points to even the match, powered by 2 swings from Salis.
Neither team could gain an advantage early in the third game. There were 16 ties, but the Saints finally scored 3 straight points to take a 19-17 lead. Lambert opened the stretch by killing a 1-set from Barry. The 6-foot-1 senior finished with 7 kills, 5 blocks and 6 digs.
"It was fun," Lambert said. "I'm blessed to have awesome setters."
Another Niski smash brought the Saints to match point, and Woods tipped the winner past the Marist block to finish the season on a winning note.
Barry had 32 assists, Dailey had 6 kills and a block, and Woods had 3 kills and an ace for the Saints.
"I am so proud of them," Kull said of her team. "At the beginning when we started this was a dream to come here. We didn't know if we'd make it. And then to finish third and end our season with a win is just the greatest feeling in the world. I couldn't be prouder of these kids. They battled and got it done."