It was a fast start for Evanston, and a strong finish.
But in between Palatine did plenty right to pass its first test of the Class 4A state girls volleyball tournament on Tuesday night in Mt. Prospect.
The No. 9-seeded Pirates closed out a 25-22, 25-22 win over No. 8 Evanston when junior Haley Holz's back row kill snapped an 8-point run by the Wildkits to get Palatine to match point at 24-21.
The Wildkits got back to within 2 points on a block by Maggie Sirieka. But Holz stepped up again with the match-winning kill to send Palatine into Thursday's title match of the Prospect regional at the Jean Walker Field House.
The Pirates (26-10) will face top-seeded New Trier (30-5), a three-set winner over No. 16 Glenbrook South (14-19).
"We shouldn't have let them go on that run at the end," said Pirates senior setter Allison Aldag, who handed out 14 assists. "It was definitely our serve receive that broke down a little and then we kind of put on a pouty face. But Haley's back row kill really inspired us to finish out the match."
Holz finished with a team-high 7 kills while also serving 3 aces and collecting 3 digs.
"Haley has been our go-to player all season," said Pirates coach Dan Gavin. "She still doesn't always play with the confidence she should and there's no reason for it. She is a very, very good all-around player. She can pass, hit, block and serve. She is kind of the total package so when she really truly figures that out, I'm not sure many people are going to stop her."
It seemed there was no stopping Evanston (17-19) at the start as the Wildkits raced to an 8-1 advantage.
"I guess it just became more real to us that it could be out last match and we just really stepped up and came together as a team," Aldag said. "We weren't as focused as we should have been at the start but we really stepped up and picked up our serve and serve receive which helped. We got our groove back."
The Pirates sure did, gradually cutting into the deficit and taking their first lead at 18-17 on a block by senior Beverly Ryan, who finished with 6 kills.
An ace by Holz pushed the lead to 22-19 and the Pirates got to set point (24-21) on a clever dump by Aldag that landed cleanly on the floor.
Holly Desmond's kill got the Wildkits to within 24-22 before a side out ended it for Palatine.
Desmond, a senior setter/rightside hitter, was the server responsible for Evanston rallying from a 23-15 deficit in Set 3. She reeled off 7 straight points, including 4 of her 5 aces.
"Holly played really well, especially at the end of the match," said Evanston coach Mallory Thelander. "She put her heart on the floor and played like she wanted it with those aces at the end."
Desmond was also part of the Wildkits' fast start, serving for the first 4 points, including an ace and kills from Maya Mahoney and Rosemary Gibbons.
Moments later, three errors by Palatine gave Evanston its 8-1 lead.
"We've come back from much worse," said Pirates libero Katie Lindert. "I knew it was just a matter of when and how far along the set would be. We have some strong individual players but we just needed to start connecting better as a team."
Thelander felt her team may have gotten too comfortable with the quick cushion which forced Gavin to call for a timeout at 6-1.
"I think with that huge lead we thought it would be easy to win from there so we relaxed a little bit," she said. "And we relaxed a little bit too long basically and then they had the momentum and we struggled to get it back."
Gibbons led Evanston with 8 kills followed by Maya Mahoney (4) and Sirieka (3).
"I think we had three serving errors in the math and that just kills momentum," Thelander added. "With this team it's not what the other team is doing. It's what we are doing and if we are making errors. We played phenomenal defense last week and we just didn't show up with those defensive plays this match."
Lindert led the Pirates' defense with 7 digs followed by senior Amanda Dileo (5) and Holz (3). Tops in blocks were Ryan (7), Maggie O'Brien (3) and Emily Campe (1).
The Pirates also got 2 aces apiece from Izzy Hagenbuch and Meghan Lambke.
"I feel like we've become a pretty resilient group," Gavin said. "Getting down 8-1 in a regional match, especially with some younger kids, is something that might shell-shock most teams. But it didn't shell-shock us. It almost relaxed us a little bit.
"And the second set was almost the reverse. We got a big lead (21-11) and then stopped committing to what we were doing. We talked afterward that you win, you survive and move on at this time of the season.
"But we're not going to be able to get away with this type of play in a match again."
The next match is Thursday against the top seed.
"New Trier is big, physical and well coached (Hannah Hsieh)," Gavin said. "But they are beatable. I've seen us play the type of volleyball where we can play with anyone around so we just need to do it consistently."