BELVIDERE -- To best simulate the potent swings they would see from Crystal Lake South in Thursday's Class 4A Belvidere North sectional title match, the Warren girls volleyball team practiced on Wednesday against a few of that program's coaches.
However, not even a scout team of adults could prepare the Blue Devils for the relentless barrage they faced from CL South's grown-up attack, led by outside hitter Carly Nolan. The junior finished with 13 kills to lead the Gators to a 25-14, 25-20 victory over Warren and into the Elite Eight.
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"It's big, really big," Nolan said of the win. "We're really excited about it, but we have more to go, definitely."
CL South (36-3), which notched a 36th victory for the first time since the 1996 team qualified for state, advances to the Huntley supersectional against Lake Zurich on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Lake Zurich (35-4) defeated Stevenson 25-23, 25-22 to win the Conant sectional.
The sectional title is the first for the Gators since 2008, sixth-year coach Jorie Fontana's first season.
"We have one big goal in sight," Fontana said of a state berth. "All these other ones (regional, sectional) have been steps to get there. We approach these as our mini-goals leading up to that one big goal. It keeps them focused. It takes a little of the pressure off the match at hand when you're focused on that one big 'S' out there."
The atmosphere was atypical for a sectional final. Crystal Lake South enjoyed decent fan support from its student body, but the gym was less than halfway full since few made the trip from Gurnee to support Warren (25-14), which fell behind 10-5 in both games.
Once the Gators grabbed the lead, they pounded away. And it wasn't just Nolan, who also made 7 digs. Senior setter Cassy Sivesind (29 assists) spread the chances among senior middle hitter Nicole Slimko (7 kills), senior outside hitter Avalon Nero (7 kills, 17 digs) and senior middle Sara Mickow (5 kills).
"They are very good, very hard hitters," Warren coach Julie Filippo said. "We have a lot to learn. We've got a young team. We knew we were the underdog and we had to play at the top of our game. We just got beat."
By pounding the ball repeatedly early on, CL South was able to reap a benefit in Game 2. After Allyson Mitchell's spike drew the Blue Devils within 15-14, Nero responded by winding up from the back row only to hit a changeup that landed in front of a retreating defense bracing for another big hit.
"We just wanted to try to keep them on their heels by pushing them deeper, then switching it up with off-speed stuff," Nero said.
Trailing 18-14, the Blue Devils defended 2 swings from Nolan only to see Sivesind beat them with a smart setter dump.
"Your mental strength will deteriorate if you keep hitting the same shots at the same people and they keep picking it up," Slimko said. "You have to be smart and place the ball."
The Gators closed the proceedings on a 10-5 run, punctuated by a Nero spike for match point the Blue Devils could not dig.
"We just couldn't quite get it done," Warren senior setter Rachel Zeiger said. "But I'm so proud. My uncle emailed me an article a couple of weeks ago, talking about an old man who built a bridge for those to come. That really hit home. I wanted to build a bridge for the next years to come, and I really feel like we did that this year."
Sophomore Jenna Walczak had 4 kills, Mitchell had 2 kills, 2 digs and an ace and Ziegler finished with 4 assists and 3 digs for Warren.