Matchups: Friday, Semifinals, New Trier (38-1) vs. Mother McAuley (35-4), 7:30 p.m. and Benet (38-2) vs. Libertyville (34-6), 9 p.m.; Saturday, Third-place match, 7:25 p.m., Championship match, 8:55 p.m.
Scouting Benet vs. Libertyville: Defending state champion Benet, perceived as a long shot to repeat two months ago, arrives in Normal the team to beat this weekend. If the Redwings do win it all, they'd become the first repeat champ in the state's largest class since Mother McAuley in 1994-95. Ironically, No. 1 Benet was ranked behind Libertyville in the Daily Herald's Preseason Top 20, Libertyville No. 4 and Benet 10th. The Redwings get it done with defense and a fast-paced, multifaceted attack. North Carolina recruit and All-Area Captain Sheila Doyle, with 349 digs, keys Benet's relentless defense that wins many long rallies. Cara Mattaliano, whose older sister Val played on the 2008 runner-up, is a quick outside with 192 digs who also leads the team in kills with 383. Senior setter Hannah Kaminsky, who has 976 assists and 132 kills, has never lost a tournament match in high school. When Benet passes and can run middles Brittany Pavich and Rachael Fara, the Redwings are nearly unstoppable. Libertyville is making its first state appearance since a fourth-place finish in 2007. The Wildcats went 4-1 and took seventh place at the Wheaton Classic, won by Benet in September. Two of Libertyville's losses came to fellow 4A semifinalist New Trier. Keying Libertyville is four-year starters Cindy Zhou and Kristen Web. Zhou, a 6-foot setter committed to Michigan, holds the school record for assists with more than 2,000 and has 742 this season to go with 176 kills and 39 aces. Webb, a 5-6 Butler-bound libero, smashed her old school record with 742 digs. Taylor Zant, a 6-1 senior right-side, and Julia Smagacz, a 6-foot senior outside, are the Wildcats' top hitters. It is natural to look forward to a potential Benet-McAuley final, but Benet coach Brad Baker's thoughts are squarely on Libertyville. "They're good, they have some good size, their setter is very good and they play good defense. It's no joke that they're down here," Baker said. Benet, which has won 22 straight matches, weathered what was thought to be a tough sectional to make its third state appearance in five years. "It shows how hard our kids have worked to make it happen," Baker said. "That being said, we're not just satisfied to get back down here. We're here to win a championship."
Scouting Mother McAuley vs. New Trier: Ending a three-year "drought" by its standards, 13-time state champ McAuley makes its 24th appearance at state. The Mighty Macs start five sophomores off a Michio Chicago club team that won the USAV Junior National Championships Open Division last summer. That includes 6-foot middle Kelsey Clark, a transfer from Marian Catholic with 186 kills, and 5-9 outside Ryann DeJarld, the team's kill leader with 200. McAuley lost to Benet in the Autumnfest final and also lost to the Redwings in the 2008 state semifinals. New Trier is making its first state appearance since 2006. The Trevians, whose lone loss came to Lyons Twp. in a three-game match played to 15, are led by lefty Northwestern-bound setter Taylor Tashima. Outside Brittani Steimberg is New Trier's kill leader, but keep an eye on 6-3 Virginia recruit Haley Fauntleroy, who had 9 kills and 6 blocks in the supersectional win over Glenbard West.
Matchups: Friday, Semifinals, St. Francis (35-5) vs. Champaign Centennial (36-4), 4:30 p.m. and Jacksonville (30-8) vs. Richmond-Burton (36-4), 6 p.m.; Saturday, Third-place match, 4 p.m., Championship match, 5:30 p.m.
Scouting St. Francis vs. Champaign Centennial: With all due respect to the other semifinalists, this could be the de facto championship match. St. Francis, seeking its ninth state championship and first since 2006, is making its 17th state appearance. This is Champaign Centennial's first. But don't for a minute think this is a mismatch. Champaign Centennial beat St. Francis 14-25, 25-11, 25-21 on Sept. 8 in Effingham, an early indicator that the Chargers would be a contender in 3A. "They're very tall and they have a lot of weapons," St. Francis coach Peg Kopec said. "We do have a different lineup now. I would hope we're a lot better." Perhaps the most significant lineup shuffle, freshman Molly Haggerty -- playing middle earlier in the season -- is now lined up outside. Haggerty's 268 kills are second on St. Francis to older sister Maddie's 280, and she was virtually unstoppable in the sectional final win over Joliet Catholic with 18 kills. The Haggertys are the Spartans' biggest hitters, but Becca Shearer, Mary Boken, Michelle McLaughlin and Kristin Acciavatti are capable. Making it all go is senior setter McKenna Kelsay, with 857 assists and 246 digs. St. Francis has won 12 straight matches since a three-game loss to Joliet Catholic at the Asics Challenge. Rachel Jones, a 6-foot senior middle, leads Champaign Centennial with 256 kills and 123 blocks; another middle, 6-2 middle Lauren Cloyd, has 218 kills and 117 blocks. Kara Johnson, a 5-8 outside, has 209 kills and a team-best 78 aces. "We've improved a lot since the first time we played them. I know we have," Kopec said. "But I'm sure they have not been stagnant themselves."
Scouting Jacksonville vs. Richmond-Burton: Two relative newcomers to Normal. Richmond-Burton, making its first appearance, hadn't even won a regional since 2004. Jacksonville last appeared at Redbird Arena in 1998, when it took third in Class A. Jacksonville, which lost to Champaign Centennial in a sectional semifinal last year, is led by 6-2 junior middle Jaelyn Keene and her staggering 439 kills, 225 digs and 100 blocks. Richmond-Burton 6-1 junior outside Ali Frantti boasts even bigger numbers, with 519 kills, 218 digs and 68 aces. Twin sisters Kara and Kim Russell are the Rockets' setter and second-leading kill leader, Kim's 311.
-- Joshua Welge