Believe it: Libertyville advances to state tourney
Kristen Webb couldn't believe her eyes, and her Libertyville volleyball teammates could share her excitement.
Prairie Ridge's serve was out and, like that, Libertyville was in.
The Wildcats' exhausting, 26-24, 25-23 win in Saturday night's Class 4A Hoffman Estates supersectional put them in the state quarterfinals for the first since 2007. Libertyville (34-6) will play defending state champ Benet Academy (37-2) at 9 p.m. Friday at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena in Normal.
"When that last serve went long, I was like, 'Did that just happen?' " a wide-eyed Webb said. "And then it hit me."
Had Taylor Otto's serve not landed inches long, who knows what would have happened? Behind Otto's serving, Prairie Ridge was within a point of wiping out a 24-16 deficit, which would have put the Wolves on the cusp of forcing a third set.
"At the end, we'll take a serve out of bounds," Libertyville coach Greg Loika said. "That's fine. The girls earned it. They played tough. Prairie Ridge is a great team — very scrappy. The rallies were going back and forth. These defenses were incredible. I think we just had a couple of more swings in the tank than they did. It could have been anybody's game. The sets couldn't have been any closer. We're just thrilled to keep playing and keep practicing."
Webb, Libertyville's acrobatic libero, led a defensive effort with 33 digs, as she was diving all over the court to keep balls alive. Cindy Zhou (19), Rhiannon Prentiss (12) and Brooke Donovan (11) also posted double-digit dig totals for the Wildcats. Vicky Liu added 9 digs.
"Everyone knows defense wins games," Webb said. "If you can't get things up, you can't start your offense. I went out there with the mentality that I can't let anything drop, because this is for state. I thought (Prairie Ridge) played awesome defense too in the last part of the game. I was getting a little nervous because nothing was going down. After every timeout, they'd come back out and they'd know what we were running."
Prairie Ridge closed out its season at 30-10.
"We made a lot of unforced errors tonight," Wolves coach Stephanie Otto said. "They play great defense over there and serve-receive very well — better than I saw them play against Palatine (in the sectional final), for sure."
Prairie Ridge trailed 24-17 in the second set after a Libertyville lob landed just wide. Otto, whose mom is the head coach, went back to serve, and the Wolves started rallying. Three kills by sophomore middle Ali Witt helped cut their deficit to 24-22. Otto then delivered an ace for her sixth straight serving point, but her next serve sailed long, setting off a wild celebration for Libertyville.
Stephanie Otto wasn't surprised that her daughter was unflappable at the service line with the Wolves trying to repeatedly stave off match point.
"She's been steady with that ever since she was little," Prairie Ridge's coach said.
It was Libertyville that was staring at defeat in the opening set. Prairie Ridge led the majority, but three missed serves after its lead was 19-17 proved costly. Up 23-20, the Wolves surrendered three straight points.
"We took a timeout (trailing 23-20)," Loika said, "and we said, 'We've been at this score before — on the top end and bottom end. We just need to keep fighting for these points, because if you side out, you get back on serve and it's anybody's game. It's not over.' "
Kennedy McNeil's kill gave the lead back to Prairie Ridge. But Libertyville got a kill by Julia Smagacz and block by Alex Basler, before the Wolves mishit a ball into the net to end it.
"It was insane," Wildcats senior right side Taylor Zant said. "I was not expecting it to happen. I knew that our team could push. I had so much confidence in us, and we finally finished."
Libertyville had trouble finishing off the second set, but a balanced attack had helped the Wildcats build a cushion that proved ample, albeit barely. Zhou (19 assists, 3 kills, 2 blocks) distributed the ball nearly equally to Smagacz (6 kills), Basler (5 kills, 3 blocks), Zant (5 kills) and Prentiss (4 kills).
In the end, the Wildcats' lack of unforced errors put the pressure on Prairie Ridge to win it.
"I was just trying to get the ball over the net," Zant said. "I didn't want to make a mistake. But then again, I wanted to be as aggressive as possible. I relied on my teammates so much. I had confidence we could do it. It just took a while, but finally we pulled through. It's unreal. I can't even process it."
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