Mike Bui filled Harvest Christian's girls volleyball schedule with Class 3A and 4A schools just for this reason.
The Lions played Benet, Wheaton Warrenville South, Neuqua Valley, Marion, St. Viator, Huntley and Barrington.
Harvest Christian didn't win one of those matches. But each loss made the Lions better, and as the final weekend of the volleyball season unfolds this weekend at Redbird Arena in Normal, Harvest Christian is still playing.
The Lions (29-11) hope that grueling schedule will pay off one more time when they battle Champaign St. Thomas More (37-3) in the Class 2A semifinals at 1:30 p.m. Friday. The winner plays either Newton or Quincy Notre Dame for the state championship Saturday.
After losing in the supersectionals six straight years, Harvest Christian is ready for its state debut.
"Playing some of the teams in 4A and 3A has really helped us all year," said Bui, in his third year coaching the Lions. "St. Thomas More is so similar to some of the teams we've played. So we'll see some big swings from them, and I'm sure our kids will not be scared at all. All of our losses this season have been to 3A and 4A schools besides one, so we feel like we made the right decision on our schedule this year to play bigger schools."
The Sabres are coming off a 25-20, 25-19 victory over Aurora Christian in the supersectional. Harvest Christian beat that same Aurora Christian team in 3 sets to earn a share of the Northeastern Athletic Conference title.
Also making its first state appearance, St. Thomas More is led by Auburn-bound Mica Allison with 307 kills and 74 blocks. Five other players have at least 120 kills.
"I've been able to watch a lot of tape on St. Thomas More," Bui said. "They are very good, they are the top team in 2A in the state. Very similar to teams like Benet, Barrington, St. Viator and Huntley. She'll (Allison) probably be the best player we've seen this year. Amazing setter and a heavy hitter on the right side. She's their go-to hitter."
Sophomore middle Allie Trame has 160 kills and 96 blocks and has committed to Alabama. Bui knows he'll need his defense at its best to have a chance.
"I think we'll be going into the match as a underdog for sure, they are very strong on the right side and middle," Bui said. "So we'll make some adjustments on defense. It'll be an offense vs. defense match. I expect both teams to play as hard as possible, especially with the opportunity to play for a state title."
Harvest Christian setter Kaitlyn Murray has 798 assists, spreading them around to Amanda Cassidy (283), Madison Pfister (181), Hannah Griffith (154) and Zoe Pawelek (118).
Candis Kaplan leads in digs with 345, Rylee Boldog has served 110 aces and Griffith blocked 81 balls.
Before coaching the Lions, Bui worked with Jennie Kull at St. Charles East and is hoping to draw on some of that success this weekend. He also can let his team know what to expect playing in a college arena.
"This week has gone by so slow for all of us," Bui said. "We are just excited to make the trip to Redbird Arena for the first time. Now our focus is on St. Thomas More and preparing ourselves for them. Being down here three times for me, I'm helping them prepare for the arena and environment. I've told them before it's not the same as playing in a gym.
"I've been part of one of the biggest upsets in state history when St. Charles East beat Benet in 2008. We went into that match just relaxed and no pressure. So we'll go into this match relaxed and enjoy playing the game."