A veteran of regional finals, Gabi Casper wanted a swing at playing in another one.
So Grayslake Central's senior outside hitter kept swinging.
With power. With precision. With guts. With guile.
And she connected.
Casper's career-high 12 kills and 11 from Alex Dahlstrom helped the Rams rally past Antioch 14-25, 25-21, 25-18 in semifinal action at the Class 3A Lakes regional Tuesday night.
"She had a big night," Grayslake Central coach Jason Janczak said of Casper, his four-year varsity starter, who also totaled 19 digs and served 2 aces in the critical third set. "That kid leads with heart."
Casper gets a chance to lead again Thursday, as No. 2 Grayslake Central (24-12) will face top-seeded Lakes (27-8) at 6 p.m. in the regional final. The Rams will be seeking their third regional championship in Casper's four years with the program.
"I really wanted this," said a relieved Casper, smiling.
Antioch (21-8) thought it had it.
The No. 3 seed dominated the opening set, as junior setter Marissa Grant (a Central Michigan commit) served back-to-back aces, Elena Kelsh finished a pair of attacks and 6-foot-4 Eastern Michigan-bound Sam Falco pounded 3 kills in helping the Sequoits go up 15-9. Kelsh had 3 aces in helping stretch the lead to 24-11.
"That first game, we came out swinging," Antioch coach Jamie Atkinson said.
Grayslake Central had trouble receiving serves and digging hits in that first game.
"Slow starts is what we've kind of been doing this year," Janczak said. "The (assistant) coaches and I noticed a couple of things that we could have exploited. We talked about that in between the first and second sets.
"And these girls responded beautifully to what we asked them to do."
Casper's ace opened the second set, a kill by Dahlstrom and blocks by Lexi Beckman and Hayley Peterson helped Grayslake Central build a 6-1 lead. Antioch rallied, as Falco, Madeline Johnson, Brenna Lamusga and Grant finished at the net, and the Sequoits took a 19-18 lead. But a mishit and net violation sandwiched an ace by Beckman, as the Rams forced a deciding set.
"We struggled a little bit on serve-recieve, but we worked a lot on that (in practice Monday), and that's what we picked up in the second and third games," Casper said. "Which helped us a lot."
Antioch led 4-0 in the third set and later 12-10, but Grayslake Central then took over. Casper's kill, Taylor O'Neil's block, Dahlstrom's kill, Casper's ace, another kill by Dahlstrom and a kill by O'Neill had the Rams on their way to victory.
"That third game, we were on our heels the whole time," Atkinson said. "We were scrambling to get every ball up, and they were putting the ball right back at us every time. It's unfortunate."
O'Neil and Beckman added 6 and 4 kills, respectively, for Grayslake Central. Teresa Curtis contributed 13 digs, while Peterson delivered 3 aces and dished out 28 assists.
"Our serve-receive, the second and third sets especially, really stepped up," Janczak said. "I'm really proud of them. Once we saw what we could do against (Antioch) and we had that confidence, we were really rolling."