St. Francis gives Kopec retirement gift

NORMAL - There's no better way to go out than with a team that made IHSA history.

At least that's how St. Francis girls volleyball coach Peg Kopec sees it.

After 40 years, 1,238 wins and 12 state championships, including Saturday night's 25-15, 25-23 win over Glenbard West for the Class 4A state title, Kopec announced at Redbird Arena she is retiring. She does so as the winningest coach in IHSA history, with a final record of 1,238-229-2.

"I did not want to tell anybody earlier because it's not about me, it's about (the kids)," said Kopec, who said she made the decision in August. "They deserved to have their year."

And what a year the Spartans had. St. Francis (39-3) became the first school to win four straight girls volleyball championships in IHSA history, and the first school to win state titles in all four classes in any sport. In those four years the Spartans went 153-15.

"They did a phenomenal job," Kopec said. "And my coaching staff is outstanding. We talk about team effort with the kids and that's true with our coaching staff as well."

Saturday's win was vintage St. Francis. The Spartans ran their offense with precision and never allowed Glenbard West (36-6) to grab any momentum.

The first set was tied at 13-13 when a kill by senior Daniele Messa gave the Spartans a 14-13 lead and started a 12-2 run that finished when Messa's ace won the set.

The Hilltoppers hung closer in the second set and had it tied at 21-21 when a service error gave the Spartans the lead for good.

Appropriately, the state championship point was scored on a powerful kill from senior Molly Haggerty, who became the first player in state history to win four straight state titles. She finished the night with 13 kills to give her 467 for the season.

"Best player St. Francis has ever had," Kopec said.

"When I was a freshman I set high goals and one was to get a four-peat," said Haggerty, who will play at Wisconsin. "But I couldn't have done it without my teammates and my coaches."

And she reflected on what Kopec has meant to her.

"Words don't describe it," said an emotional Haggerty, who became the third Haggerty to win a state title in her senior year, following sister Megan in 2011 with Benet and sister Maddie with St. Francis in 2013.

"She's like a mother to us and not just with volleyball but in life. We all had no idea she was leaving so it's super-hard right now. It's great to end with a four-peat and I'm very happy for her."

It was also fitting that Kopec's final match was against a coach she once mentored, Glenbard West's Pete Mastandrea.

"I want to thank Peg for inviting me to her retirement party," Mastandrea said, adding Kopec had not told him prior to her public announcement after the match. "I'm glad we got here so I could be a part of it and be part of history. We played hard and that's all I could ask for. We left it all on the court. It was a tremendous run for us, and I can't believe it's over. Hopefully, we'll be back here in the future."

The Hilltoppers, who reached the state finals for the first time since winning the 1983 Class AA title, got a stellar effort from senior and Duke recruit Natalie Schilling, who had 11 kills. Senior setter Kate Wagner dished out 17 assists as well.

"They're a great team," Schilling said of the Spartans. "I think we just had a little too much nervous energy early on. In the second game we fought hard and I'm proud of the way we played. It's been a great thing to be part of this program for four years. I'm going to miss it so much."

Just as Kopec knows she will.

"I love volleyball and I love St. Francis," she said. "When I first started what I truly wanted to do was give memories to kids. It's just the right time and I'm very blessed to leave this way."

Images: St. Francis wins state title over Glenbard West in girls volleyball

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