Thursday's Upstate Eight Conference crossover match between Waubonsie Valley and Geneva shaped up as a good early season test for the fourth-ranked Warriors and unbeaten Vikings. After Waubonsie prevailed 25-20, 25-21 in Geneva, Vikings coach KC Johnsen thinks facing the 7-1 Warriors was more like a final exam for his talented but youthful squad.
"I've got to give Waubonsie Valley a lot of credit," Johnsen said of the Warriors, whose lone loss so far was 25-23, 29-27 to York in the Benet Invitational semifinals on Saturday. "They're a terrific team. They made some unbelievable plays on hits and tips where I thought we were sure to win the point, but they managed to keep balls alive with some great digs, hustle and back-row play. They're a very, very good team."
Geneva and Waubonsie Valley's status as two of the top teams in the area was evident in game one. Neither club could gain separation, with a kill from junior middle blocker Maddie Courter drawing the host school within 19-18. The Warriors never lost that lead, though, thanks in large measure to Brooke Burling. The sophomore outside hitter buried a pair of kills from the left side and delivered an ace that pushed Waubonsie in front 23-19. A passing error and hitting error from Geneva clinched the game for the Warriors.
Waubonsie started quickly in the second game, building a 14-9 lead on a kill by Burling from the right side. But, just when it seemed the Warriors' size and skill were wearing down the Vikings, Geneva rallied, scoring eight of the next nine points to surge ahead 17-15. Freshman right-side hitter Grace Loberg provided back-to-back block kills and Hannah Lanasa pounded a pair of kills in the run, which was sparked by a variety of blocks and digs from junior libero Kelsey Wicinski (27 digs for the match), sophomore outside hitter Kyley Thompson, Courter (four block assists) and junior defensive specialist Camille Kolquist (nine digs).
"Geneva never quit," Waubonsie coach Kristen Stuart said of the 3-1 Vikings. "They kept a lot of points alive with their scrappiness and determination. They made a really nice run. Coach Johnsen has another strong team."
But Waubonsie withstood Geneva's spurt, taking the lead for good 19-18 when Rachel Minarick made the play of the match. The senior all-state standout chased down an errant pass heading to the bleachers, managing to back-bump the ball to Waubonsie's attack line, where Burling calmly drilled a spike that the Vikings could not return. Minarick added a pair of tip kills to keep Waubonsie in front 23-21, and sophomore right-side hitter Taylor Dunwell closed out the match with a kill for the win.
Minarick showed why she will be playing on scholarship for Michigan State University starting next fall. The setter/hitter registered 12 assists, nine digs, eight kills, seven blocks and an ace, prompting Stuart to remark, "Rachel's such a beast." But it was Burling's performance (eight kills, six digs, one ace) that Stuart singled out afterwards. The sophomore's play is one key to the Warriors' hopes for an undefeated conference record and a special postseason.
"Brooke delivered some great, creative shots to the corners that got Geneva out of their system," Stuart said. "She's a beach volleyball player. She has a lot of creativity on the court in where she places balls, how she finds angles and in her passing, too."
While Stuart wants her team to only focus on the next match on its schedule, Burling said the Warriors can't help but sometimes think ahead to the Class 4A state playoffs. "We have high goals," said Burling, one of three sophomores starting for Waubonsie Valley. "As we keep meshing together as a team, we believe we can place at state. Last year we did well at regionals. This year we want to go a lot farther."
With a rotation that features two freshmen, a sophomore and five juniors, Geneva has lofty aspirations, too. Johnson hopes playing Waubonsie evenly for the majority of Thursday's match "shows us a peek at how we can play this season and motivates us to reach for that level that Waubonsie is at. We need to get back at it, focus on what we did well tonight and leave behind any frustration we feel about losing because the Geneva Invitational is Saturday."
The Vikings' annual tournament brings together a strong field that includes Batavia, Aurora Central Catholic, Joliet Catholic, DeKalb, Burlington Central and Morris.