St. Francis answers the bell
Peg Kopec, wily veteran coach that she is, isn't quick to reveal all her secrets.
Asked how she guarded her St. Francis team against emotional letdown Saturday, she simply replied, "I think it's pretty easy."
Whatever was said or done worked.
Two days after a marathon win over Joliet Catholic, matched against a Chicago Christian team it already had beaten twice relatively easy this season, the Spartans weathered an early storm on their opponents' home court for a 25-22, 25-15 win at the Class 3A Chicago Christian supersectional.
St. Francis (35-5) advances to Friday's 4:30 p.m. state semifinal at Redbird Arena against Champaign Centennial -- which two months ago handed the Spartans their first loss.
Any dearth in emotion on St. Francis' part Saturday would have been eradicated just by walking on the court in Palos Heights. The jam-packed small gym was jumping.
"It was loud," St. Francis' junior Maddie Haggerty said, "as loud as I've heard it here."
Haggerty's tip kill over a double block got the Spartans out to an early 18-12 lead in Game 1, but sparked by Emily Lindemulder's 2 kills, block and an ace Chicago Christian tied it 20-20.
The two teams knotted again at 22-22, before Chicago Christian was whistled for a double contact violation and St. Francis' Kristin Acciavatti dropped in a kill that just eluded two defenders. A Knights long hit gave St. Francis a hard-earned Game 1 win.
"We knew they'd come out with a lot of emotion and with everything they had," said Haggerty, who had a match-high 11 kills. "We just stayed calm. We took over a match at one point and weren't going to lose."
Indeed the Spartans wasted no time seizing command of the second game.
Haggerty's big smash started things off, and a nifty dump shot by setter McKenna Kelsay capped off a 10-3 start. The lead bulged to 18-9 on a Haggerty kill and a Mary Boken block.
"Anytime you're in the situation we were in tonight you just have to play steady," Kopec said. "Ball control, our game. Our girls did a great job of that."
Chicago Christian coach James Garcia understood the challenge his team faced. Fellow members of the Suburban Christian Conference with St. Francis the last four years, the Knights (24-16) -- Class 2A champs in 2010 and runners-up in 2009 and 2011 -- were bumped up to 3A this year by one student.
"I'm proud of how my girls played in that first game. We were right there," Garcia said. "We've actually played them tough. That would be the ultimate trophy for us, would be to beat a team like St. Francis."
Becca Shearer had 5 kills, Kelsay 20 assists and 4 kills and Molly Haggerty 3 kills for St. Francis.
It is the school's 17th state volleyball appearance -- but given what this team has been through from personal tragedy to injuries, it holds extra significance to Kopec and the girls.
"It's special," she said.
It is also Maddie Haggerty's second trip to Normal in as many years, having helped Benet to a 4A title in 2011.
"It's a new team," she said, "but the exact same feeling. Really exciting."
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