In a boys volleyball match focused on seniors, Metea Valley sophomore Joe Berka sure played like an upperclassman Tuesday at rival Neuqua Valley.
When senior outside hitter Ryan Luckinbill's back forced him to be a late scratch from the Mustangs' starting lineup, Berka took his place.
It was Berka's first varsity match.
"I got really nervous because that was, like, my first day, especially against Neuqua. It's just big," Berka said. "I had a big knot in my stomach at first. I just went out and played and it went our way."
Berka collected a team-high 12 kills and helped the Mustangs to a strong start and remarkable finish that pulled out a key 25-23, 17-25, 25-23 Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division victory in Naperville after trailing 15-8 and 21-18 in the third set.
Andrew Miller, Enrique Lopez, Alec McKinney and Noah Marzuki also fueled the Mustangs (21-10, 3-1 UEC Valley). Austin Neace and Connor Hounsell, Aaron Lauth and Brian McKissick led the Wildcats (11-19, 2-2).
"Luckily, we just brought (Berka) up from the JV yesterday for the last week and a half of the season," Metea coach John Aister said. "Right during the national anthem I told (Berka) he was starting. I said, 'Just don't get rattled, relax and play like I know you can,' and he did."
So did the Mustangs, who remain tied for first place in the UEC Valley with Waubonsie Valley. They can clinch at least a share of their first conference title by winning May 20 at South Elgin, the other team to beat Neuqua.
The Mustangs have beaten the Wildcats in all three of their meetings this season, all in three sets.
"I don't know how (this comeback) happened," Aister said. "I just told them in the timeouts, we've got to step up, elevate our game. We got some key blocks at timely times and kind of shut their offense down and forced them to do things they didn't want to do."
Instrumental in the final push was the senior leadership of Miller, who will play at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. After the Mustangs rallied to tie the third set 18-18, the Wildcats scored the next three points and Aister used his last timeout.
Miller scored the next point with a dump kill off serve receive and served the next three points with an ace before his next serve was just long, leaving the set tied 22-22. After the teams exchanged points, the Mustangs went ahead 24-23 on an attack error and won with a kill by Lopez out of the middle.
"We stuck together as a team, regardless of how we got let down on some of our points. We had positive energy," Miller said. "We beat them twice this season and it's the third one that's always the hardest. Now that we can beat them for a third time on their own court for the conference split, it's a big deal."
This loss especially stung the Wildcats with the conference implications and because it was Senior Night. All five seniors (Neace, Lauth, Kyle Zacok, Devin Furio and Matt Siebach) played in the first set and helped the Wildcats gain momentum. They controlled the second set behind 11 kills with just one attack error but surrendered six aces in the third set, two a result of being out of rotation.
"I told the guys it was tough losing a match like that. We had Game 3 if we just had gotten one or two passes here," Neuqua coach Roderich Mendoza said. "The way we played (the third set) was so consistent with how we played all year. We don't pass the ball very well. We have guys that can get kills if we can actually get a good pass."
Berka had 6 kills with one error in the first set but soon found himself attracting multiple blockers. Miller said the Mustangs tried to put their passes more toward the middle to keep the defense honest.
"When the sets are going and you're feeling it, it's a good feeling," Berka said. "It was good and then they figured it out. Then we've got to mix it up a little bit."
With Berka in the front row, Miller executed the dump kill that ignited the late third-set rally.
"The middle blocker was creeping with Joe. They were cheating over," Miller said. "I saw (the middle open), I just took advantage and I threw it down."