In a match that deserved to end with a bang, Lem Turner was ready to answer the call.
The Vernon Hills sophomore middle hitter licked his chops as he saw a ball hovering over the net. With his team fighting for match point in Friday night's hotly-contested, three-game Antioch sectional semifinal against Buffalo Grove, Turner was ready to thrown down an emphatic winner.
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He threw one down, all right, and he and his teammates and their fans went nuts … all before they had to walk it back because Turner was in the net.
"I wanted that one. I was so excited when I saw that ball coming over. I was thinking 'I'm going to get the game-winning kill,' Turner said. "And then it was like, 'Ughhh, I hit the net.' But I knew our team would pull through, though."
The Cougars did eventually, and had just enough in the tank to do so.
They had to scratch and claw for five more points after Turner's near miss before coming away with a dramatic 32-30 win over Buffalo Grove in the decisive game three. It was the second win in a row for the comeback Cougars, who lost the first game, 21-25 but then won the second game 25-21.
Vernon Hills, seeded fourth in the sectional and now 32-6 on the season, will return to Antioch to face No. 2 Deerfield at 7 p.m. on Tuesday for the sectional championship.
"I am crazy relieved right now, after coming back from a deficit like that," said Turner, who finished with 8 kills but came up biggest when it mattered most. He had 5 kills in his last 8 attempts. "It was nerve-wracking, but at the same time, it was fantastic. It got us on our toes and it made the game that much funner."
There were seven ties in the third game from 24-24 on. Junior outside hitter Max Spiglanin (match-high 20 kills) broke a 30-30 tie with a kill and then the game came to an end when Buffalo Grove was called for a double hit.
"It was the right call. It's too bad we were in that situation, but at this point, I'm walking out of here very proud of our guys," said Buffalo Grove coach Matt Aiello, whose team, seeded eighth, closes out the season with a 20-18 record after playing its best volleyball in the last week. The Bison knocked off top-seeded Stevenson to get to the sectional.
"We had four sophomores and a junior on the court today," Aiello said. "They grew up over the last few matches…big time."
Buffalo Grove's senior captain Evan Bunnetto set a good example for his younger teammates with inspired play all over the court. He had a team-leading 10 kills and 9 digs. Tullio Ruscitti, a sophomore, led the Bison with 15 digs and setter Kevin Shanahan, another sophomore, had 21 assists.
"We started out the season rough, going back and forth," Bunnetto said. "But in the playoffs, we came together as a family and started playing the way we knew we could."
Likewise, Vernon Hills had faith it could come back from its first-game loss. Rallying has become a habit for the Cougars this season.
"Coach kept telling us to just keep our heads in it because we've come back from behind before," Spiglanin said. "We knew we could win if we kept pushing."
In addition to Spiglanin and Turner, Mike Heinz and Tyler Small were big hitters for Vernon Hills. They had 7 and 5 kills respectively. Small had 3 kills in his final 3 attempts late in the third game.
Setter Ryan Opitz had 40 assists for the Cougars while Turner led in blocks with 7. Chris Edwards and Heinz had a team-high 16 digs apiece.
"(Coming back) is the only thing we've been doing well lately," Vernon Hills coach Chris Curry said. "We've been struggling lately to find a rhythm. But they keep playing. They stay calm and just find a way to settle each other down, laugh it off and play the next point."