The St. Charles East girls volleyball team quelled an uprising from improving, young Larkin in a hot gymnasium on Elgin's west side Tuesday, fueled by three senior holdovers from the team that placed third in Class 4A last year.
Senior setter Erienne Barry dished 15 assists, including 8 kills by senior hitter Nicole Woods and 7 kills by senior hitter Caitlyn Ballard, to help the Saints defeat the Royals 25-21, 25-18 in the Upstate Eight River Division opener for both teams.
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"It's really nice when you can set them all the way to the pin and they just kill it down the line," Barry said of Woods and Ballard. "We're kind of otherwise all new to each other, so it's nice to have two girls I know how to set who I've played with before."
St. Charles East (6-5, 1-0) led 10-5 in the opening game until Larkin (4-5, 0-1) ran off 10 of the next 12 points to take a 15-12 advantage. The Saints made several unforced errors during the spree and Larkin capitalized on the momentum, forging a 3-point lead after a spike by junior Paige Grantham and junior Brianna Stewart's tip kill.
However, the Saints righted themselves, tying the game 17-17 on consecutive block kills by Ashley Bullock and 6-foot sophomore Mikaela Mosquera.
Moving forward, there were 4 ties and 3 lead changes until the Saints pulled away from a 20-20 tie with 4 straight points. A Barry tip, another Mosquera block and 2 aces by Katie Kull put the Saints in control. A kill by Larkin senior Annalise Gaston halted the momentum momentarily, but Woods tipped a ball alertly for the game winner and a 1-0 lead.
"I think we just stopped playing as smart as we did early in the first game," said Larkin junior hitter Olivia Kofie, who will play college volleyball at Western Michigan alongside St. Charles East's Barry. "It was harder after we got in a little hole."
The Royals couldn't muster the same kind of challenge in Game 2. The Saints jumped ahead 10-4, keyed early in the run by 2 big hits and a block kill from Woods. Larkin trimmed the deficit to 5 points on three occasions, but the orange and black closed out the sweep on a double-hit violation by the Royals.
"I think we still have some learning to do, learning how to win," first-year Larkin coach Henry Graack said. "Last year they won 12 matches. It's learning how to win at the end of close games more than anything else. I think they were pretty heartbroken at the end of the first game, which is maybe why the second game started off a little slow."
Larkin received a solid performance from junior right side Brianna Stewart, who returned after missing several matches due to injury. She used her deft touch to lead the Royals with 6 kills. Stewart also finished with 5 digs and 2 blocks. Kofie had 5 kills, 5 digs and 2 blocks, while Gaston notched 3 kills and 3 digs.
Sophomore Anne Hughes led the Saints with 6 digs and Barry added 5 more for a team that has gone 6-1 since its 0-4 start.
"We're growing more and more as the season goes on," Ballard said. "We're really starting to mesh."