A never-say-die effort by Sierra Kepski, typical of the junior even while her volleyball team's season was dying rapidly, ended with the Carmel defensive specialist diving, rolling and thumping her head on Conant's court.
The loud crowd for the Class 4A sectional semifinal between Carmel and Stevenson went quiet.
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"She's all right," Carmel coach David Pazely said. "No concussion or anything. Just a nice, big knot on the back of her head."
Kepski wasn't able to retrieve the blast off the hand of 6-foot-5 Kara Maleski, and that wasn't surprising. Stevenson's hard-hitting attack came from everywhere, from Patriot after Patriot after Patriot. Khaila Donaldson's 10 kills and 9 digs led Stevenson, as the third-seeded Patriots outlasted No. 2 Carmel 25-21, 25-19 Tuesday night.
Thursday's all-North Suburban Conference Lake Division sectional final at 7 p.m. will see Stevenson (31-7) play top-seeded Lake Zurich (34-4), which rallied past Glenbrook North 24-26, 25-17, 25-19. Lake Zurich defeated Stevenson in the teams' only regular-season meeting.
"We focused on our side more than (Carmel's) side and what we could do," Stevenson 6-foot-1 senior middle Julia Osmond said. "They put up a really good battle, but we put forth a lot of energy. We all had a really good warm-up and we all came together."
Stevenson's attack was balanced. Besides Donaldson's double-digit performance, the Patriots received 6 kills from Osmond and 4 apiece from Maleski, Grace Duffy and Jen Kapov. The variety of options for Alexa Bykowski (66-of-67 setting, 25 assists) and the execution of her hitters helped get Stevenson going after Carmel (31-8) enjoyed the better of the play to start the match.
The Corsairs led 5-0 and were still up 13-11 when back-to-back kills by Osmond evened the score. Donaldson's serve then handcuffed a Corsair and Stevenson had its first lead.
"I think in that first game, when we were down, Julia really carried us offensively," Patriots coach Tim Crow said of Osmond, a team captain. "She made some huge plays to allow us to keep hanging around, so we wouldn't be put away real early."
Carmel fought back in the opening set to gain a 20-17 edge, but back came Stevenson. The Patriots prevailed thanks, in part, to an ace by Bykowski, a kill from freshman Jori Radtke and a pair from Donaldson, who drilled the winner after an acrobatic dig by Peyton Bykowski, whose punch preceded a backward somersault.
"Some of our key players were struggling (early)," Osmond said. "What we talked about today was if certain people are struggling, it's everyone else's job to help them out. We can't rely on just one person."
A couple of kills and a block by Morgan Meade helped Carmel jump out to leads of 3-0 and 10-6 in the second set, but the Corsairs couldn't put up a strong enough block to consistently thwart Stevenson's multitude of weapons.
"Stevenson was great," Pazely said. "They executed all night long. Their defense got to everything, and their serve-receive was excellent. That's why they were able to side-out all the time. And that No. 9 (Donaldson), she does everything for them."
"They have really good hitting," Carmel setter Alyssa Armada said. "They didn't let the ball drop. They played really scrappy."
Stevenson was ahead 22-18 when Maleski's hard drive redirected off a couple of Corsairs, the last of which was Kepski. She lay on the court for a couple of minutes, before standing, as Carmel's toga-wearing student fans gave her a standing ovation.
An official requested that Kepski be taken out of the game, but she wanted no part of it.
"I'm fine," she said aloud.
"Of course she (said that)," Pazely said with a smile.
Stevenson finally celebrated victory after another kill by Maleski and Nikki Zarytsky's ace, which painted the corner.
"We didn't play real clean," Crow said. "Carmel plays great defense. They were making great plays on the ball."