LANARK -- One would not have blamed Harvest Christian's girls volleyball fans if they had begun to set their GPS units for Redbird Arena after Game 1 of the Class 1A Lanark Eastland supersectional here Saturday afternoon.
Unfortunately for the Lions and their raucous fan contingent, they didn't need directions back to Elgin, but that's where they were headed after another supersectional disappointment.
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Unable to sustain the momentum of a dominating Game 1 win, Harvest fell to Keith Country Day 18-25, 25-19, 25-18 and missed out on a trip to the IHSA Final Four for the second straight year.
"We came in here thinking that losing was not an option," said Harvest coach Kim Floyd, whose team had beaten Keith twice in Northeastern Athletic Conference play this season. "We prepared as much as we could prepare but they outhit us and outplayed us all around."
Keith (31-7) also had an X-factor it didn't have in the regular season matches -- 6-foot-3 junior Adaje Lambert, a transfer from Rockford Guilford who just became eligible earlier this week and was playing her third match for the Cougars. And while Lambert had 9 kills and 3.5 blocks, it was more her insertion into the lineup, allowing fourth-year Keith coach Lynn Cesario to move sophomore Alex Nunez to the libero position, that made the big difference. Nunez had 14 digs and 7 aces in the win.
"We're a different team now," said Cesario, whose team will play downstate power Kansas in the state semifinals Friday. "Having a strong libero with two strong outside hitters makes a big difference."
The other strong outside, 5-11 sophomore Iman McGary, was the real X-factor for the Cougars. She had 13 kills, time and again blasting away from the outside to spots Harvest (31-6) couldn't cover.
"She's a great player but one player doesn't make a difference," said Harvest junior Sydney Doby of Lambert, "but (McGary), she played really well."
Harvest Christian, playing in just its second year of IHSA competition, was the aggressor early on. Doby went to the service line in Game 1 with a 4-3 lead and before Keith could break the 6-2 standout's serve, the Lions had built an 11-4 lead as Doby served 4 of her 7 aces in the run.
Harvest built the lead to as much as 14-4, 18-8 and 23-13 before the Cougars came back to make it 23-17 and 24-18. But a long serve by Keith's Samie Newman gave the Lions a 1-0 lead in the match.
The Lions had a 3-2 lead in Game 2 when Nunez took over serve and in turn Keith took over the match. Nunez served 4 aces and McGary had 3 kills as the Cougars opened up a 14-3 lead and never looked back. Trailing 18-10, Harvest fought back to within 18-15 but an out-of-bounds serve made it 19-15, a lead Keith extended to 23-15 before the Lions battled back to within 24-18. But a McGary kill ended Game 2 and sent the Cougars into Game 3 with renewed hope.
"They worked through the nerves," said Cesario. "Our physical talent is there, it was the mental game they had to work on. We've been working for this all year and this is huge for Keith."
The Cougars left little doubt in Game 3 as to who had the momentum. They never trailed in the game, taking leads of 8-2, 16-5 and 19-7 before Harvest tried to battle back. Down 23-14, the Lions closed to within 23-17 on 2 aces from Doby and a kill from senior Jordan Sollars. But a serve out made it 24-17 and even though Keith served out to make it a 24-18 game, Lambert slammed home match point to an open hole in the middle to send Keith to the state final tournament for the second time in program history. The Cougars took second in Class 1A in 2008.
"Our passing broke down and our block came apart," said Doby, who had 8 kills. "We knew we could win but we weren't finishing every play. We fell behind and worked hard to close the gap but we didn't close it fast enough. It wasn't our smartest game.
"We could have won, we just didn't. It's disappointing. This was our year to go to state. Would, coulda, shoulda I guess."
Sollars had 10 kills and 5 assists for the Lions, while Katelyn Floyd added 12 assists. Sarah Kott had 2 blocks and 2 kills.
"I'm very proud of my team," said Kim Floyd, who loses Sollars, Kott, Erica Manusos, Michaela Frantz and Katelyn Floyd to graduation. "They worked hard and they played hard. Our game plan was to put up a strong block and it didn't happen. We knew they'd be strong hitting-wise and (Lambert) is a great asset to their team. But the first time we played them we held (McGary) down and we didn't today."