Benet completes championship repeat
NORMAL — Call it two the hard way.
Counted out at the beginning of the year, down a game in both matches this weekend at Redbird Arena, No. 1-ranked Benet stormed back Saturday to beat New Trier 21-25, 25-22, 25-17 to repeat as Class 4A champion.
Redwings senior outside Cara Mattaliano, who didn't even dress at state last year, carried her team home with 21 kills — including Benet's last 4 points of a riveting second game and match point in the third.
"I wanted to win, I knew my teammates wanted to win and I gave it everything I had," Mattaliano said. "Nobody thought we would do anything this year."
Benet (40-2) graduated four Division I players, lost 10 seniors and 95 percent of its offense from last year's state champs.
Repeat? Well, yes.
Benet becomes the first back-to-back champion of the state's largest class since Mother McAuley in 1994-95, and the first 4A repeat champ since the state expanded to four classes in 2007. The Redwings won their last 24 matches and didn't drop one all year when at full strength.
"We graduated everybody. Nobody expected us to be here," Benet coach Brad Baker said. "Nobody except the kids who are here today. They made it happen."
Benet had not dropped so much as a game since Oct. 13 until Friday's semifinal against Libertyville, when the Redwings rallied from down a game and 15-10 in the second.
Saturday's situation seemed even more dire.
Against a big New Trier team after its first title since the state's inaugural tournament in 1975, Benet seemed tentative in committing 8 errors to drop Game 1. Then it trailed 20-16 in the second after a kill by Trevians' 6-foot-3 Virginia-bound middle Haley Fauntleroy.
Kills by Rachael Fara and Mattaliano allowed Benet to creep closer, and the Redwings took a 21-20 lead on a kill by sophomore Natalie Canulli.
With senior Nicki Barnes unable to go most of the match because of a foot injury suffered Friday, Canulli came off the bench with 4 big kills.
"When you have an opportunity, you want to take advantage of it," Baker said, "and she did."
Fauntleroy tied it again at 22-22, but Mattaliano followed with a kill, then dropped in a pair of off-balance tip kills that somehow dropped just in over the block.
"That was luck," Mattaliano admitted. "I don't know. I knew it was open."
Benet became the first team to beat New Trier (39-2) in a full match this year. The Trevians dropped a three-gamer played to 15 against Lyons Twp. during the season. Brittani Steinberg, who had 15 kills Friday against Mother McAuley, put down 17 Saturday.
Eight of New Trier's 20 errors came in Game 3.
"We weren't making the adjustments we needed and then we started playing tentative," New Trier coach Hannah Hsieh said. "They started to play with more confidence, with more rhythm."
Baker had a hard time explaining his team's slow starts, which dated back to the supersectional win over Edwardsville. He even adjusted his lineup Saturday to compensate.
"It was like Jekyll and Hyde," he said. "We were going to lose that match. And then our kids wouldn't let us lose."
Indeed, much like Friday against Libertyville, Benet controlled Game 3 from the get-go.
A block by Fara was followed by a Mattaliano kill and a New Trier hitting error. Consecutive kills by Benet setter Hannah Kaminsky made it 5-0. The margin grew as wide as 16-7 on another Mattaliano tip kill and a kill by Brittany Pavich, one of her 9, made it 23-15.
Kaminsky, remarkably, finished her Benet career undefeated in tournament matches dating back to freshman year.
"It's like I said Friday, we have that fight in us that we're not going to lose," said Kaminsky, who had 33 assists. "Everything we worked for happened. We proved everybody wrong and I'm so happy."
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