Trailing 18-16 in the third set in Tuesday night's Class 4A Schaumburg regional semifinal, Saxons' outside hitter Kelly Koutnik had a message for her teammates.
"This is our house. Let's go."
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The senior's message finally proved true as the No. 5 Saxons rallied to pull out a 25-23 victory in the third set against No. 11 Larkin (19-17) on Tuesday night to advance to Thursday's 6 p.m. regional final against St. Charles East.
"It really doesn't get any better than that," Koutnik said. "It's such a thrill and that's the best part of the game when you play good competition and show who you are on the court."
That competition was too much for the Saxons to handle early on. Larkin juniors Olivia Kofie (4 kills) and Brianna Stewart (6 kills) fueled an attack that got the Royals off to a convincing 25-16 first set win.
Larkin appeared to be riding the momentum of its opening round victory against crosstown rival Elgin the night before. Schaumburg, on the other hand, hadn't played since Oct. 19.
"There is something to the fact that we hadn't played since last week and these guys played yesterday," Schaumburg coach Jeanette Pancratz said. "They had some momentum and rhythm going and we had to struggle to regain ours."
Schaumburg still wasn't able to shake off the rust for most of the second set. A back-and-forth set resulted in Larkin holding a 21-19 lead. The lower-seeded Royals were 4 points away from sending the Saxons home in a two-set match.
But a timely kill from Koutnik (13 kills) triggered a 5-0 Saxons run that they were able to ride to a second set win. With the match tied at 1-1, the home Saxons had the momentum going into the deciding set.
This time, Larkin came out firing early and had a 5-0 run to take a 20-16 lead.
Once again, when the Saxons needed to come up big, they did. Schaumburg junior Kiana Lewis (9 kills) smashed 4 kills to propel a 9-3 run to close a tense first playoff match for the Saxons.
"Our focus and our discipline picked up as the game progressed," Pancratz said. "Really, that's what brought us home the victory."
But for the Royals, the tale was the opposite.
"It's obviously as rough as a season could possibly end, having the lead at the end of the third game against a team you feel you can beat," said Larkin coach Henry Graack, whose team had beaten the Saxons two weeks ago in the Schaumburg tournament.
The defeat marks the end of 19-win season after a 12-21 finish in 2011 for the Royals. The rebuilding job done by his seniors is one Graack said he's proud to be a part of.
"They're bringing this program where it needs to go," Graack said. "I know it's a rough way to lose but they're bringing the program in the right direction. I can't thank the seniors enough for hanging in there and fighting through what they went through the last couple seasons."
It wasn't exactly the way Pancratz wanted to start off the state tournament. But at the end of the day, the Saxons are moving on.
"The great thing is that it doesn't matter if it was ugly or pretty," Pancratz said. "It was a win."