NORMAL -- There's no magical reason behind the Crystal Lake South girls volleyball team's trip to the IHSA Class 4A state finals.
Gators' coach Jorie Fontana didn't wave a magic wand. There were no move-ins who suddenly helped transform Fontana's team from one that lost in a regional final in 2012 to a Final Four team in 2013. The playoff path wasn't dotted with patsies -- heck, the Gators' first postseason match was against a Cary-Grove team that, had it beaten CLS, could be where the Gators are this weekend.
And where Fontana's Gators are this weekend is Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University, getting ready to take on two-time defending state champion Benet Academy in Friday's 7:30 p.m. state semifinal.
It's a blast from the past for a program that in the mid-1990s made trips to Redbird an annual affair, bringing home four state trophies (two of them Class AA runner-up finishes) between 1991 and 1996.
But that was then and this is now, and the now is that Fontana, now in her sixth year as the Gators' coach, has her team playing on the final weekend of the season for the first time since 1996, when the Gators lost to Stagg in the Class AA quarterfinals. That was one year after coach Pete Kottra's crew took second to Mother McAuley at the state tournament. Of course, back then the state final tournament was two classes of eight teams each and games were played to 15 points, not 25. Sideouts were the rule, not rally scoring. And in 1996, most of the current Gators were still in diapers or hadn't been born and Fontana was a fledgling freshman star at Jacobs, known then by her maiden name, Jorie Miguel. She became a standout player for the Golden Eagles, earning Daily Herald all-area honorary captain status in 1999 before going on to an all-conference career at Loyola University that included playing in two NCAA Tournaments.
Since 1996, South has had some good, even great teams. Well, let's delete "some" from that. This is a program that has now had 28 straight winning seasons. Crystal Lake South girls volleyball has won 788 matches and lost only 212 since 1984. The Gators are 141-50 under Fontana.
But they hadn't won a regional title since 2008, Fontana's first year as head coach. Not that they didn't have the talent to do so, but for the past four years the Gators ran into the great Prairie Ridge or Cary-Grove teams in regional play and lost.
Not this time, though. CL South hasn't lost a single set in the postseason and the Gators now stand at the threshold of the program's first state championship, and second for any CL South sports team (the 1980 boys golf team won state).
"We've been playing with each other for a few years now," said Gators' senior Avalon Nero, noting that the entire South team plays for the highly successful Sky High club program. "We're comfortable with each other and we're pursuing our goals."
Those goals, Fontana says, were clearly defined from Day 1: Win the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division title, win regionals, sectionals and make it downstate.
Check, check, check, and check.
"Every year we have a purpose," said Fontana, who now has three children with husband Rob, all of whom will make the trip here this weekend with Gator Nation. "Sometimes it's individual improvement, sometimes it's to battle for the conference title and beyond. The goal this year was to make the state tournament and we said that from Day 1. Our conference is so tough, and our regional is so tough. But this group, mentally, is very businesslike. Errors and mistakes are evaluated and changed. They learn from their mistakes and move on immediately. Sometimes the best teams have fallen because they don't do that.
"These girls know each other so well, they know how to respond to each other. They know how to motivate and push each other."
Pushing each other is a key, says senior Nicole Slimko.
"It's the fight we have," she said. "We refuse to give up and call it a day. We're always willing to push our hardest. In tough situations we stick together as a team and we don't play as individuals."
"We all have the same dream and that helps us succeed," says junior standout Carly Nolan.
While the Gators have matured as a team, so, too, has Fontana as a coach.
"She's learned from a lot of past experiences and she shares that with us," Slimko said. "She really connects with us."
Connecting with her team has also helped Fontana make the Gators believe a state championship is possible.
"Right from the beginning she let us know we really had a chance," said Nolan, "but she made us work hard, practice hard, and we're a different team this year."
Heading to Redbird as more than a spectator for the first time (for a high school tournament) is fulfilling to Fontana as well.
"As a coach you're always hoping you help them see what's possible and maybe even stretch them a little," she said. "I'm most proud of the fact they trust me. They take what I say and they apply it to the match at hand. I'm not inventing the game for them. I want them to find a purpose in everything and learn from it and they've done a great job of that. We have a great working relationship."
A relationship that culminates this weekend -- for this team and this season -- at the place every girls volleyball team in the state would like to finish the season, under the bright lights of Redbird Arena.
Follow John on Twitter @RadtkeJohn