The event-like atmosphere surrounding Tuesday's girls volleyball match between Elgin and Larkin initially threw the host Royals off their game.
With the school's band playing at a volleyball match for the first time -- during homecoming week no less -- Larkin came out jittery and made 6 service errors that contributed to inspired Elgin winning the first game 25-23.
Then the Royals took a collective deep breath, settled down and recorded only 2 more service errors the rest of the match while offsetting their early mistakes with 8 aces. Larkin won the final 2 games against their Upstate Eight River rivals 25-16, 25-18 to improve to 12-10 overall, 2-1 in the UEC River. Elgin slipped to 1-19-2, 0-2.
"We played good, but we could have done better as far as staying more relaxed and calm and just playing," said Larkin junior outside hitter Brianna Stewart, who finished with a match-high 8 kills to go with 2 blocks and 2 aces. "But no matter how good or bad we are, if we beat them, we feel great."
Busy Elgin, which played Friday and Saturday at the Hersey Invite and lost to Streamwood on Monday, capitalized on Larkin's early mistakes during a 5-0 run that staked the Maroons to 15-12 lead. They never trailed again in Game 1 despite Stewart pulling Larkin within 24-23 with a smash from the right side.
Elgin persevered and grabbed a 1-0 lead when junior outside hitter Melanie Berg powered one of her 4 kills through a Stewart block attempt to seal Game 1.
However, Larkin jumped to a 4-0 lead in Game 2, powered by kills from Olivia Kofie and Anna Gaston, and never looked back. The Royals moved to a 17-7 lead on an Elgin mishit and evened the match on Stewart's deflected spike off an Elgin blocker.
"We came out fighting, but then we let some of those hitters get in our heads and our mistakes kept building up in our heads," said Elgin senior Hope Demel, who led the Maroons with 7 kills and added 8 assists. "It's so mental, it's so mental. We could have done better, but I think we learned."
The decisive third game was tied 3-3 until the Royals used a 5-0 burst to gain separation, a run highlighted by Paige Grantham's putdown of an overpass and Gaston's ace. Larkin senior Amber McGhee came off the bench to serve consecutive aces and bulge the Royals' lead to 15-6.
"I felt pretty confident about that," McGhee said. "It was a rivalry game, so (the aces) were good for our confidence. We're a lot more confident when we're all excited and the energy's up."
Kofie finished off the match with a blast from the right side, courtesy of a backset from junior Alyssa McGhee. The Western Michigan recruit registered 6 kills, 4 blocks and 2 aces, and Alyssa McGhee contributed 15 assists. Gaston had 12 digs to help Larkin shake off its slow start.
"I felt like a lot of the first game was nerves," said Larkin coach Henry Graack, who coaxed the school's first-year band director, Brendyn Dobbeck, one of his former boys volleyball players, to bring the band to the match.
"I think that was part of it, too, all that build up," Graack added. "I felt like at the end of that first game we kind of calmed down and started to come back a little bit, but we just dug ourselves too deep. The end of the first game started the change, then we just carried it over."
Improving Elgin will get back to practice today for the first time in nearly a week and keep working to get better.
"Larkin came out extra motivated, like they should have," Elgin coach Scott Stewart said. "It's their homecoming week and their home court. I get it. I went (to Larkin). I know how it goes. Whatever. We'll keep fighting. We have another one Thursday and we've still got a long way to go. The season's only halfway done."