One thing the Harvest Christian girls volleyball team won't be Saturday afternoon is caught off guard.
Playing against IHSA competition for the first time last season, the Lions traveled to River Ridge a year ago to play Dakota in a Class 1A supersectional and suffered through some stage fright in losing one game short of making it to Redbird Arena and the IHSA Final Four. Saturday, Harvest takes on Keith Country Day of Rockford at 3 p.m. in the Lanark Eastland supersectional with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
But this year is different, according to Harvest coach Kim Floyd.
"We've been this route before," said Floyd. "(Last year) was great preparation work for us. That stage is a whole lot bigger than you're used to playing on but that shouldn't be as big a factor for us this year."
When the Lions traveled to the shores of the Mississippi River last year to play Dakota, most of the Harvest contingent may have thought Dakota was from one of the Dakota states and not Illinois. Saturday's opponent will be much more familiar to the Lions as they take on Northeastern Athletic Conference rival Keith Country Day. Harvest (31-5) owns two wins over the Cougars (30-7) this season, defeating them 25-21, 12-25, 26-24 in the regular season and then 25-18, 25-20 to win the NAC tournament.
But, and this is a big but, Keith played those games without 6-foot-3 junior outside hitter Adeja Lambert, a transfer from Rockford Guilford who became eligible this week for sectional play. She had 19 kills in Keith's sectional wins, including 11 in a 3-set win over Stockton in the finals on Thursday.
"She hasn't played against us," said Floyd of Lambert. "She's 6-3 and she'll put up a good block but we've been working so hard on blocking. We're prepared."
The Lions have rolled through the postseason, barely being tested in their four postseason games so far. They've won 7 straight, have been taken to three games only seven times all season and they've only lost 10 sets the entire campaign.
Harvest is led by the hitting, blocking and serving of 6-2 junior Sydney Doby (259 kills, .415 hitting percentage, 86 blocks, 94 aces). Senior Jordan Sollars has 243 kills and 77 aces and senior setter Katelyn Floyd averages 4.6 assist per set and has 58 aces and senior Erica Manusos has added 120 kills.
"They're a good team," said Keith coach Lynn Cesario of the Lions. "Sydney Doby is obviously a very strong player and their setter is pretty good. We've been working hard and growing since we played them last."
While Cesario acknowledges Lambert's presence has made her team better, the Cougars had a pretty solid season going prior to Lambert actually taking the court. Iman McGary, a 5-11 sophomore, and 5-10 junior Danielle Coleman give Keith some size up front and Lambert joining the team allowed Cesario to move 5-8 sophomore Alex Nunez from the outside to libero. Junior setter Marisa Morgan (5-10) runs the Cougars' offense.
"We're a pretty balanced team," said Cesario. "Iman is a great hitter and adding Adeja Lambert didn't hurt us. It makes our offense better."
But Harvest Christian appears poised and ready for a different result in the Elite Eight than the Lions had in 2011.
"We're just ready to go further, to take the next step past supersectionals," said Doby after Thursday's sectional title win over Morgan Park Academy. "We know we can play well together -- we play great as a team. We need to prove it to ourselves and do it out on the court."
The Lions also know they have to put the jitters aside once they take the court.
"We have to be calm, very focused and we have to believe we can win," Sollars said.
Facing a familiar opponent, one they've had success against, is something the Lions are looking forward to.
"We're definitely excited to play Keith," said sophomore libero Jade Martinez. "We've met them twice this season and it should be a good game."
Both coaches agree it will come down to which team plays its own game the best.
"We just have to do our job in terms of fundamentals," said Floyd. "You do what you can to control your part of the game. I focus a lot on what we can control then pull in the different aspects of the other team. We know their strengths and weaknesses."
"We'll have to be mentally ready," Cesario said. "Physically we're there. We've grown a lot. We just have take care of the mental side of our game."
Saturday's winner will advance to the Final Four in Normal next Friday at 10:30 a.m. to face the winner of the Windsor supersectional match between Edinburg and Kansas.
Steve Nichols contributed to this report