NORMAL -- IC Catholic girls volleyball coach Jean Field has seen her share of comebacks in 39 years of coaching at the Elmhurst school.
But even Field admitted she had never seen a team come from behind in a setting like Friday's the way her Knights did.
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Down 17-6 in the first set to defending state champion Deer Creek-Mackinaw in the Class 2A state semifinals at Redbird Arena, IC put together a comeback for the ages in the 40th state tournament.
The Knights (35-6) went on an almost indescribable 11-0 run then closed the game with an 8-5 spurt before taking control of the second set midway through, completing a 25-22, 25-17 victory that puts them in Saturday's state championship match at 1:30 p.m. against undefeated Edwards County (41-0), which beat Fieldcrest 25-22, 25-17 in the second semifinal.
"Awesome," Field smiled. "Exhilarating. Words can't describe it. I've seen comebacks like that, but never in a state semifinal. This team has been behind in big games but they play with so much heart. You just don't ever lose confidence."
Senior outside/middle Rory Manion had 16 kills -- one less than the entire Dee-Mack team -- six of them during the comeback, including five in a row at one point.
"Rory is a fighter," said Field of Manion, who had to play part of the set with a heavily taped chin after drawing blood on a dive to the floor but then was able to discard the bandages when the bleeding stopped.
"You put her in a big game and you know you can count on her."
The huge deficit meant little to Manion and her teammates.
"We weren't giving up," said Manion, who added 4 digs to the win. "We just kept pushing like we always do. We count on each other and we never lost faith in ourselves."
Junior Hannah Hartnett was at the service line for the 11-0 run, and credited Manion for keeping her going through the comeback.
"Rory always gives me advice," Hartnett said, "and I wasn't in a mood to make a mistake."
Dee-Mack (36-2) used the power of 5-foot-10 junior Lauren Anderson (6 kills) and four IC errors to help turn a 9-5 lead into the 17-6 advantage and the Chiefs appeared to be on their way to an easy first-set win. But then Anderson hit out of bounds and the rotation put her in the back row during IC's explosion.
"We got too comfortable and we didn't execute," Anderson said. "We let off the gas a little."
First-year Dee-Mack coach Brandon Mueller, a Bartlett graduate and former Hawks' player and coach, took the blame for his team's loss.
"The game of volleyball is all about momentum and (IC) took it from us," he said. "We didn't adjust very well and a big part of that was my fault. We were too predictable on our outsides. We came out on fire and looked smooth but then (IC) started making plays and we were waiting for them to make a mistake instead of going after it. (IC) put us in situations we didn't handle as well as we have in the past and we just didn't have an answer for number five (Manion). We didn't adjust to the things she was doing."
The Knights' run finally ended on an Anderson kill from the back row that gave Dee-Mack an 18-17 lead. But a Manion kill moved her to the service line for IC and her ace and then a kill from senior Delaney D'Amore (8 kills, 23 digs) gave the Knights their first lead of the set at 19-18 and they never let go, eventually winning the set on a net serve by Dee-Mack.
"We perform better when we know we have control of the game," said D'Amore.
The second set was a chess match early with Dee-Mack holding an 11-7 lead before Hartnett, who had 15 points in the match, took over service after a Manion kill. Using another kill from Manion, one from sophomore Claudia Koch and two Dee-Mack errors, the Knights took the lead for good at 12-11, stretched it to 19-16, then 24-17 with D'Amore serving. Fittingly, a Manion kill ended the match and sent IC to the state title match and a chance to win the program's third state title and first since 1984.
"It's a dream come true," said Hartnett of playing for the state championship. "We've been playing volleyball our entire lives and you just can't put this into words. It will be the game of our lives and we'll just leave it all on the court."
Senior setter Kimmy Martino had 23 assists and sophomore Kerry Mulligan added 11 digs for the Knights.
"It never gets old," said Field of playing for a state title. "We've talked about the 1981 and 1984 state championships and we've watched those games on tape. The coaches wrote down the things to enjoy. These kids will remember this for the rest of their lives. This is the best you can do in high school sports."