No. 1 team vs. No. 1 player?
Nobody expected this one-sided of a match.
Putting on a digging and serve-receive clinic, top-ranked and defending state champion Benet needed just 30 minutes to beat No. 5 West Aurora and Lauren Carlini 25-10, 25-11 in Tuesday's Class 4A Neuqua Valley sectional semifinal.
Benet (36-2) is back in a sectional final for the sixth straight year, where it will play Lemont, a 15-25, 25-19, 25-21 winner over Plainfield North.
"West Aurora is a great team and they did not play their best tonight. Our girls played well," Benet coach Brad Baker said. "One of our goals is to continue every match to get better."
West Aurora (32-6), which lost a 28-26, 25-23 nail-biter to Benet in August, was expected to give the Redwings perhaps their toughest test on the road back to Redbird Arena. Wisconsin recruit Carlini, the No. 1 player in the country, according to PrepVolleyball.com, was a big reason why.
But the Blackhawks never could get in rhythm.
Five straight West Aurora hitting errors gave Benet a 7-2 lead out of the chute in the first set. The Blackhawks gave Benet 13 points off errors in the set, 11 of them hitting errors.
"Sometimes I think we overplay, we try to do too much," West Aurora coach Kari Nicholson said. "We just weren't in our flow. Not good."
Carlini had a mortal night by her standards, with 5 kills and 4 assists. Her powerful jump serve, usually a big weapon for West Aurora, was a non-factor. She attempted 4 serves all night, and the Blackhawks scored just 1 point off them.
In all fairness, kudos goes to Benet. The Redwings put their knee pads to good use, because Sheila Doyle, Cara Mattaliano and Co. were constantly going to the floor to dig out big hits or Carlini serves.
"We knew coming in, everybody knows, that she's a great player -- she's awesome," said Doyle, Benet's senior libero. "It's been our goal all season that nothing hits the floor. We got a lot of touches on blocks and were able to run them down when they were tipped."
"We figured tonight was going to come down to serve-receive, and mainly those two rotations (with Carlini and Peyton McKenzie) where they have jump servers," Baker said. "When we're running slides on their jump servers we knew it was going to be a good night.
"To score against us sometime you have to hit the ball a little harder because our defenders are good. It can make you do things you're not comfortable with. They didn't seem very comfortable tonight."
Leading 11-6 in the first set, Benet all but put it away with a 9-1 run. Nicki Barnes had a tip kill off Carlini's serve, and Brittany Pavich had 2 kills sandwiched around 2 West Aurora errors. Pavich threw down another kill off a slide, then slammed a West Aurora overpass into the court for an 18-8 lead.
Time and time again Benet ran its middles on slide plays, which West Aurora had no answer for. Pavich had 10 kills, Rachael Fara 5 and Abby Willett 3.
"Any team, when they're hot, they're going to continue to go where they're hot," Baker said. "When we're scoring points on slides we're gonna keep going there."
Benet never trailed in the second set, jumping out to a quick 4-0 lead. Fara blocked Carlini at the net, Mattaliano made West Aurora pay with a kill off an overpass and Hannah Kaminsky served up an ace. Kaminsky had 16 assists and blocked a Blackhawks spike for match point.
Clearing big hurdles in Naperville Central and West Aurora in two sets, it is hard to envision Lemont posing a threat. Just don't tell the Benet girls.
"We just keep pushing forward," Pavich said. "We know how hard it is to get to the state finals. You never take anything for granted."