Geneva and Glenbard West have played each other for years at the Hilltoppers' tournament. The schools' two coaches are good friends who know this matchup will yield excellent fundamental volleyball and make each of their teams better.
On Thursday the teams met again, this time on a much bigger stage, and for over 90 minutes they traded marathon rallies in front of a lively crowd in the Class 4A Larkin sectional championship game.
With No. 2 seed Geneva 2 points away from ending the top-seeded Hilltoppers' season in Game 2, Glenbard West came up with just enough clutch plays for a 25-27, 27-25, 25-21 victory and its first sectional championship since 1985.
"I've wanted it since freshman year, I've been on the team all four years, it just feels so great, we've worked so hard," Glenbard West senior Amanda Perry said. "It's finally here."
Glenbard West (37-2) set a school record with its 37th victory and will play New Trier (38-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Niles West supersectional.
"When people asked me what today was going to be like I said you better plan on staying there awhile because it's going to go deep into three, the rallies are going to be ridiculous and the defense is going to be lights out," Glenbard West coach Pete Mastandrea said. "If you are a fan how do you not like that kind of volleyball?"
The teams got after it from the first point to the last. They were tied 11 times in Game 1 but the Vikings (30-8) didn't take their first lead until Taylor Marmitt's kill made it 25-24 moments after Hannah Buck's kill denied the Hilltoppers a game point. Geneva completed its comeback when Hilltoppers setter Caleigh Ryan just missed wide on a quick tip shot trying to catch the Vikings off guard.
Mastandrea said serving was part of the problem.
"In Games 1 and 2 we weren't hitting our serving zones and the libero (Kelly Dalheim) was jumping in on everything and she's so good we were trying to keep the ball away from her," Mastandrea said.
The Hilltoppers bounced back early in Game 2 and led at one point 13-7 on Megan Wagner's kill.
Geneva answered by scoring 14 of the next 20 points to go up 21-19, making some unbelievable digs including one point when both Jess Wicinski and Sammy Gola dove to keep the ball up as everything the Hilltoppers tried to do to end a point didn't seem to work.
"We kept telling them that second game, we can still get this game," Geneva coach KC Johnsen said. "Boy, we almost did."
Meg Demaar served four straight points to put the Hilltoppers up 24-21 but the Vikings saved four game points -- aided by a Hannah Lanasa block, Wicinski kill and a couple Hilltopper errors. Tied at 25 the Vikings hit out, then watched Ryan set one of her 45 assists to middle Katie Ball for the 27-25 win.
"How am I nervous when you have Caleigh Ryan touching the ball 80 percent of the time?" Mastandrea said. "The kid is player of the year status. She calms our floor, she does all the right things."
The Vikings led briefly 3-2 in Game 3, then like the first two games had to play catch-up the rest of the way. Ahead 16-14, Glenbard West scored 4 straight to open its biggest lead at 20-14 as Geneva -- who had not made many mistakes all night -- missed consecutive shots.
The Vikings fought off 2 more match points -- they denied 7 game points in the 3 games -- before Perry's tip found an open spot on the Geneva side.
"We tried our hardest out there," said Buck, who led both teams with 18 kills. "It was really neck-and-neck all game. They are a really good team, they were putting the ball in smart places and we weren't able to pick them up."
Demaar had 33 digs as Glenbard West's defense made life as hard for the Vikings hitters as Geneva does to its opponents. Wagner and Perry both had 13 kills and Ball 12.
"When I came to this program, our program wanted to be like Geneva. Aggressive serving, tremendous defenders, you don't make mistakes and that's what KC has done," Mastandrea said. "I admire him and his team.
"Our job is not done. what another classic matchup (with New Trier). Am I dreaming this? The whole season has fallen into place, but our season is not done. Tonight is not a celebration for long."
Geneva will graduate seniors Buck, Dalheim, Gola, Renner Burns, Wicinski, Nichole Schneider, Megan Ball, Becca Spitzig and Kelly Gordon, a group that shared a few tears following Thursday's loss but also smiled reflecting on how far they came.
"Both sides were really playing intense and they just came out with the win this time," Dalheim said. "This is the farthest any Geneva team has gone. So to just be here is a really great accomplishment for us. For a team that wasn't supposed to do this good we're really proud of ourselves."
The Vikings bring back three sophomores Maddie Courter, Lanasa and Kelsey Wicinski plus juniors Courtney Caruso and Marmitt from a team that won its first Upstate Eight Conference River championship. Without a superstar Division I type player that most 30-win teams have, Geneva was able to use teamwork and toughness to achieve things the program had never done before.
"I thought we gave them a great battle, I thought Glenbard West played really well," Johnsen said. "I thought both teams played like it really mattered.
"I thought our kids battled awfully hard all year long. We never really overpowered anybody. We had to function well as a team. We kept asking them to do that and they kept doing that until the last ball. It was a pretty remarkable season."