Girls volleyball: St. Viator embraces downstate challenge from Resurrection
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When St. Viator's girls volleyball team makes its first appearance in the state finals, the Lions will have a few things in common with its opponent in today's Class 3A semifinal at Illinois State's Redbird Arena.
Like St. Viator (29-11), Resurrection (33-8) is making its first appearance in the state finals.
Like St. Viator, Resurrection is also a Catholic high school.
And like St. Viator senior Catherine Hickey, the Bandits feature a senior who is a true go-to player.
Her name is Brittany Welch, a senior outside hitter who has slugged 302 kills this fall.
"To the best of my knowledge, I believe they have an All-American (Welch) in their outside hitter so we're going to concentrate on her," said Lions coach Charlie Curtin. "During our entire ride through the state tournament, we've had to shut down a dominant player so we will have to be successful doing it again.
"We'll concentrate on trying to keep her out of system as much as we can. After that, we'll just focus on playing the type of game we're used to playing."
That game includes the powerful attack of Hickey who has 533 kills this season, a record for the program. It includes the expert setting of senior Michaela Mueller (1031 assists), the strong blocking of junior Kate Nottoli (55 blocks) and the terrific defense from junior libero Carrie Leazer (601 digs).
"When I got here as a freshman, the team had a strong season and I had high hopes for this team this season," said Leazer, whose sister Emily starred at Viator and Augustana. "It's amazing to be the first girls volleyball team at our school to go downstate. It's definitely an unreal experience."
Resurrection's Welch also has 205 digs, 44 blocks and 32 aces along with her big attacking game.
"I know they have a tough outside hitter (Welch) and a tough setter (junior Christine Gatta (653 assists)," Leazer added. "So we've got to keep an eye on them."
Nottoli will certainly be among the Lions keeping an eye out.
"To stop a player like her we need to defend," Nottoli said. "Honestly, we have to try to get into her head by getting blocks, and trying to get as many touches as possible.
"That's what I've been working on because I know it's pivotal to help set up the defense through my block. It just motivates me because it can benefit the team so much when I have the block up."
Setting up the offense as usual will be Mueller, a three-sport standout for four years who has advanced to sectional championship games with her St. Viator soccer and basketball teams.
Performing in the state finals is the highlight of her sports career at Viator.
"This was always our goal since the beginning of summer," she said. "It's definitely a team effort with everyone working together and having the same goal to get where we wanted, and to finish how we wanted."
The Lions have gotten here with some dramatic wins, including three straight three-set wins (two in the Burlington Central sectional where they dropped the first set).
"Our motto definitely has been 'never give up'," Mueller said. "Even when we lose a set, we keep pushing. We've really been putting it all on the line because we don't want to see our season end.
"This has been my biggest thrill in high school sports, especially because it's my senior year."
Other seniors on the Lions' roster are Kendall Claffey (185 kills, 127 digs), Rina Rodriguez (55 kills, 13 blocks), Meghan Doheny, Carli Pulver, Caroline Carlton, Joy Bertagna, Annie Sweeney, Rebecca Wolf and Nicole Marcinkus.
Other juniors include Kaylee Liberty (78 kills, 10 blocks), Taylor Pfaller (88 digs, 32 aces), Sarah Melone, Anna Haas and Sara Hankinson.
Completing Curtin's postseason roster is sophomore Vicky Gorny.
In the supersectional win at Rochelle, the Lions dropped a tough 26-24 second set before rallying from an 18-14 deficit in Set 3 to win 25-23.
"These girls never quit," said Curtin, who owns a 224-186-1 record in his 11 seasons. "We've been behind and have played a lot of three-set matches.
"They just continue to fight to the end. They want this magical ride to continue and aren't willing to give up. We've gone on serving runs and been able to get some timely kills and blocks. It's been fun."
The Lions' 29 wins have tied the school record, set by Curtin's 2009 team which finished 29-10.
"We've played a very tough schedule," Curtin said. " Our conference (Lions went 2-5 in the East Suburban Catholic) has some of the top teams around (Marist is No. 1 in Class 4A) so we're used to playing against good players."
The Lions' last match against Resurrection came in the championship of St. Viator's own regional in 2015.
It is one of six regional crowns for Viator, all under Curtin who guided the Lions to their first sectional and supersectional titles this fall.
"It's been a historic ride for sure," Curtin added. "We're extremely excited. The buzz around the school was excellent this week and we're hoping to have a lot of fans down here."
Curtin said the week entailed a lot more planning than he ever anticipated.
"The state needs a lot of statistics and paper work," he said. "There's planning for transportation, meals and the hotel. It's kind of all-encompassing. It's eye-opening but we also want to kind of sit back and enjoy the ride at the same time."
The second semifinal at 5:30 p.m. matches Normal's University High (28-10) against Belleville-Althoff (39-1), a third Catholic school in the final four.
Althoff's only loss came in three sets (25-18 22-25 22-25) to Belleville West (27-8) on Sept. 26 in the Belleville East tournament.
Althoff was No. 1 in the most recent Class 3A MaxPreps state poll while St. Viator was seventh, Normal ninth and Resurrection 12th.
The third-place match is scheduled for Saturday at 4 p.m. and the championship to follow at 5:30 p.m.
"Obviously we want nothing more than an opportunity to play in the title match," Curtin said. " But we have to take care of business in the semifinal against Resurrection. We'll just give it our best shot."
"This has really been a dream of mine forever," Nottoli said. "When I came up as a sophomore on the team last season, I had faith in this specific team that we could get the job done and go as far as we could as long as we stuck together and worked as hard as we could."