Naperville Central pulls even with West Aurora
When Naperville Central needs an emotional pick-me-up, it can always count on Nikki Connors.
She isn't lacking in that department, and she certainly wasn't Tuesday.
The Redhawks senior middle sparked her team to start the second set after a rough first, then delivered match point in No. 8 Naperville Central's 18-25, 25-23, 25-22 win over No. 2 West Aurora in a matchup of DuPage Valley Conference leaders in Naperville.
The win pulls the Redhawks (17-4, 9-1) into a tie in the loss column with West Aurora (18-2, 8-1) and matched the Blackhawks' 25-22, 25-21 win in September in Aurora.
"I've been told my whole life that I'm an emotional player — it's just something inside me," Connors said. "We weren't about to let them take this on our home court. We were going to do everything we could to get a 'W' tonight."
Connors had 2 kills and 2 blocks to start the second set, the Redhawks jumping out to a big 11-1 early lead. Every point, it seemed, was punctuated by a Connors scream for joy at the net.
"It is contagious," Redhawks coach Brie Isaacson said. "We were lacking that emotion for a while, and she gets like that and it picks us up. I thought we played with our most emotion at the end, when we needed it."
West Aurora answered with an 11-2 run and came all the way back to lead the second set 23-22 on a Kaitlyn Richter kill, but the Redhawks scored the final 3 points to force the third. An Alysia Baznik kill, one of her 13, gave the Redhawks the lead.
Peyton McKenzie had 15 kills and Lauren Carlini 8 kills, 16 assists, 5 aces and several acrobatic plays for West Aurora, which had its 14-match win streak snapped. The Blackhawks used an 8-1 run midway through the first set, sparked by two McKenzie kills and a Carlini tip kill, to take control early on.
The momentum didn't carry over, much to the dismay of Blackhawks coach Kari Nicholson.
"When it comes down to the end we have to finish," Nicholson said. "We got them in the first game, and we let up. We lost track of our game plan."
The third set was by far the most closely contested. Neither team led by more than 4 points, and there were 13 ties. McKenzie's 15th kill gave West Aurora its last lead at 20-19, but Sammy Condon, playing in her first match after missing a week with a concussion, came back with a slide kill for the Redhawks.
Baznik delivered a crosscourt kill off McKenzie for the lead, and after getting blocked she found an open spot in the back corner for a 22-20 lead. Baznik's 13th kill made it 24-22. At match point Connors sprinted to the middle of the net, appearing ready to set a teammate, and instead flipped a winner over the net to end it.
"I kinda just made the decision that I would tip it as I touched it," Connors said. "I knew my teammate was going to be there to put it down, but I just saw an opening myself and I took it."
The Redhawks run a three-middle offense, and the three delivered whenever it seemed a point was needed. Connors and Condon each had 8 kills and sophomore Phoebe Havenaar added 6 kills and 2 blocks.
"They're fantastic," Isaacson said. "We just got to get 'em the ball. It all starts with passing."
Isaacson likes where her team is headed into the stretch run. The Redhawks — whose win was their sixth straight — and Blackhawks could meet again in sectionals.
"Every match we play, win or lose, I judge us on are we getting better," Isaacson said. "We still have tons that we can work on, but I thought we took a big step forward tonight."
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