This marked the third straight trip to state for the Chicago Payton Grizzlies. And just maybe, the third time would be the charm.
After all, they weren't playing a state power but rather a team from Gurnee named Warren. In fact, a Warren team that had 13 losses on its record and making its own first trip to state.
The Payton lead hit 20-15 in set one, and later it was still a healthy 23-20.
But this Warren team will play for a state trophy Saturday at Hoffman Estates High School. Warren toppled 30-game winner Payton, 27-25, 25-19.
Now, what exactly is going on with these Blue Devils? This was the team that wasn't supposed to be here. And now with two more wins, Warren would be a state champion.
"We are a pretty balanced team,'' said senior Jeremy White. "We don't depend on one player."
Granted, Payton plays in Chicago but the Grizzlies (30-8) brought in a legitimate hard hitter in senior Earl Schultz. He easily led all hitters in the two sets with 13 kills. However, Warren's height (with five players 6-foot-3 or taller) began to wear down Payton.
"They are huge,'' said Payton coach Casey Feeney. "And they run a lot through the middle. They are big and they blocked us."
Set one was still anyone's to grab. Warren setter Arvind Kouta (21 assists) had a big block to tie it up at 25-25.
Slugger Bryant Holland (7 kills) delivered the final blow in the comeback.
"We have seven seniors,'' said Warren middle hitter Mitch Maan de kok. "And six are starters. We don't want our season to end."
Losing a possible first set win seemed to deflate the Grizzlies a little.
Still, it was tied up again at 9-9 all in the second set. Ruben Torres, a rare junior on the floor for Warren, went into serve with the game tied. He promptly delivered 5 straight points to give the Devils some breathing room.
Kouta delivered a key block to open the scoring spurt. Again, the taller Warren squad had success at the net as de kok and White both had key blocks.
Warren coach Yun Chen again watched his Devils begin slowly in set one.
"We didn't come out as strongly as we could,'' Chen said. "During our timeouts, I told them that we have to play point for point."
Kouta pointed out that his Warren team is tough to match up with.
"We are pretty good at every single position,'' Kouta said.
A Max Bongratz block kill opened up a 20-16 lead in set two. Payton had one last stand before Maan de kok and White combined on yet another kill block.
One more Holland kill added to Kouta's set clinching kill to close out the match.
Warren will face 34-game winner in Glenbard West tomorrow at 11 a.m. The winner competes in the state title game at 5:15 p.m., while the loser goes for third place at 4 p.m.
Win or lose, Warren will go home with a trophy.
"Warren did not give up,'' Feeney said. "Our passing broke down."
Warren had better balance on offense led by the setter, Kouta. Maan de kok supplied 6 kills, and White added 5. Maan de kok and Holland led the Devils with 9 serving points each. White had 7 points. Payton had 9 kills from Alex Brown.
"It's nice that we didn't peak too early,'' Chen said.