Often in the role of underdog this season, the Warren boys volleyball team would have to try to talk its way into "the bigger and the better."
That was the case on Saturday night in the state championship match at Hoffman Estates High School.
The Blue Devils opened with an inspired win in Game 1 against Lincoln-Way East, the top-ranked team in the state.
"After that, I was thinking, 'We could actually win this!' Warren senior middle hitter Mitch Maan de Kok said of the Blue Devils' improving prospects of a state championship. "I was like, 'We just took a game from the best team in the state. We're actually going to do this!'
"But I might have gotten a little ahead of myself."
Unfortunately, for the Blue Devils, while they talked the right talk, talking themselves into believing they could be state champions, they weren't able to actually walk the entire walk necessary to reach the state championship trophy.
Warren got oh-so-close, just 2 points away from clinching what would have been Lake County's first boys volleyball state championship. But Lincoln-Way East rallied for a razor-thin win in Game 2 and then put away Game 3 to outlast Warren 22-25, 26-24, 25-19 en route to claiming its first state title in program history.
It capped a dream season for Lincoln-Way East, which closed with an amazing 41-1 record. The Griffins' only loss was to Lincoln-Way North.
Meanwhile, the 28-14 Blue Devils, who played their best volleyball in the state tournament, advanced further than any other team in program history and are one of just four Lake County teams to play in the state title game.
"Warren didn't play like they had 14 losses," said Lincoln-Way East outside hitter Nate Van Dellen, who had a match-high 18 kills. "They played really well. They blocked well and played great defense and they definitely didn't make it easy. They made us work for it."
Warren won the first game with stellar net play, both on offense and defense. The Blue Devils came up with some big blocks, and Maan de Kok and Jeremy White were the heavy hitters. They finished the match with 9 kills apiece, as did teammate Bryant Holland (9 kills, team-high 12 digs).
Lincoln-Way East started out fast in Game 2, and built a 7-2 lead. But Warren never went away. The Blue Devils slowly cut down their deficit and finally tied the game at 20-20. Then, the game was tied again at 24-24.
But Lincoln-Way East pulled out the next 2 points and took that momentum right into Game 3. The Griffins went up 9-2 in that game and Warren never closed the gap to fewer than 4 points.
"It was still a fun (match) and I'm definitely proud of the way we played it," said Warren senior setter Arvind Kouta, who finished with 27 assists. "Second place isn't bad at all.
"I'll definitely remember this moment and this entire (tournament run). This was something special. We wanted to win it and we were doing our best, but they were able to stop us. That second game gave them the momentum and we couldn't recover. We tried. We tried to make a run at the end, but (Lincoln-Way East) played great."
The Griffins, who didn't seem rattled by Warren's quick start, also got a game-high 13 digs out of Josh Phalen, 11 kills from Ryan Vorderer and 41 assists from veteran setter Austin Royer, a four-year starter.
"These guys are so mentally tough," Lincoln-Way East coach Kristopher Fiore said. "A lot of them have been playing together since seventh grade. From the start of the year, we've had a target on our backs, being ranked pre-season No. 1. When you go into every match and everyone is giving you their best shot, over the course of the season, you become mentally tough because you have to, or you're not going to stay on top."
Fittingly, the Griffins' other top senior veteran, Van Dellen, put down an emphatic kill to end the match, as well as Warren's hopes for a comeback.
"Yes, we got second and we would have loved that first-place trophy, but we definitely enjoyed this run," Warren coach Yun Chen said. "One thing I told our guys is that I've loved their resilience this season. They came back, they fought back. Tonight, they were down in that second (game), and we made a push.
"That's what I love about this team is that they learned those intangibles that they will be able to use as they graduate from high school and move through the rest of their life. That is important to me."