After his team had committed a less-than-stellar 19 unforced errors that led to a first-set loss and an 11-6 second-set deficit against St. Charles East Tuesday, South Elgin coach Adam Plach burned his third timeout of the match.
In the huddle, Plach turned to an unlikely source to inspire his players: the comic strip character Pogo.
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Plach relayed to his squad a variation on a well-known Pogo quote: We have seen the enemy, and it is us.
"I told them, 'Because of all our mistakes, right now we are St. Charles' best player,'" Plach said. "'Starting now, we need to be our best player.'"
The Storm took Pogo's, er, Plach's words to heart, playing more like the team that entered Tuesday's Upstate Eight Conference crossover tilt with a 10-2 record. South Elgin rallied to win the second set, then secured the third set for a 20-25, 25-20, 25-18 victory on the Saints' home court.
After the second-set timeout, the Storm gained momentum from a pair of block kills by middle hitter Ian Saxton (five blocks, five kills, one ace) and Dan Gibadlo that drew South Elgin within 13-11. Saxton's kill off a Saints' free ball cut the lead to 13-12, and a St. Charles East passing error evened the score at 13-13.
The Saints (8-6) briefly regained the lead 14-13 on a kill by Luke Spicer (15 kills, three aces), but South Elgin went ahead for good 15-14 on an ace off a topspin serve that senior outside hitter Nate Marotta (five kills, nine digs, one block, one ace) pounded just inside the end line. The Storm's lead steadily grew from there, and the visitors closed out the set with the win thanks to back-to-back attack errors by St. Charles.
"It was those first two majorly big blocks in the second set that got our energy up," said Marotta, whose team used a three- to four-inch height advantage over the Saints' front row to register 10 blocks in the final two sets. "Dan and Ian played huge at the net for us. Our middles, their team couldn't hit over us, and it was hard for them to stop us when we were hitting. Our size made a difference, and we had better passing to setter in the last two sets."
The Saints shook off the loss, quickly building a 4-0 edge in the third set behind an ace from sophomore setter Jacob Lauger, a block kill by middle hitter Thomas Wolfsmith and two Storm hitting errors.
But South Elgin settled down from there, scoring 10 of the next 13 points to jump in front 10-7 on a kill by Dan Gibadlo off a quick set by his brother, senior setter Chris Gibadlo (17 assists). South Elgin extended its lead to as much as 21-14 on an ace by Saxton that clipped the top of the net and fell to the floor in the front row.
St. Charles East refused to quit, inching within 22-18 on a tip kill by senior hitter R.J. Yoder. But the Storm held on for the victory when the Saints misfired a serve out of bounds and committed an attack error and Dan Gibadlo delivered his sixth kill of the match.
The loss was the Saints' second three-set heartbreaker in as many nights. St. Charles East nearly upended Wheaton North on the Falcons' home floor before North survived an exhausting 23-25, 25-16, 28-26 victory on Monday.
But the Saints came away from the two close defeats more confident that they can make a run for the Upstate Eight River Division championship and earn their second straight regional crown to boot.
"I think this team's potential is higher than any team I've played on at East," said Spicer, the senior do-it-all outside hitter who will take his versatile talents to Dominican University on a volleyball scholarship this fall. "We have a lot of confidence in our team. Last year we won the first boys' regional title at East but lost to Lake Park in the sectional semifinals. We would love to get back to sectionals and get another shot at it this year."
South Elgin (11-2) hopes its performance over the last half of Tuesday's match is a precursor to how it plays in the Upstate Eight Valley Division. The Storm opens its conference schedule hosting Bartlett next Tuesday.
A visit to perennial league contender Waubonsie Valley looms April 29.
"This is one of our best chances to win the conference, but it's going to be tough," Plach said. "Waubonsie Valley is always a challenge, Neuqua is good, Metea is tough. We have more club experience on our team this year but still not as much as some of the other teams who have players from clubs like Sports Performance. We'll see how it goes."