The host Cougars had a tough battle on their hands when they faced No. 5 Palatine for the Vernon Hills boys volleyball regional championship Wednesday.
No. 4 seed Vernon Hills had to go three games to get the job done, but ultimately the Cougars were able to pull away from the Pirates, winning 25-19 in the deciding third game to advance to the Antioch sectional semifinals at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Buffalo Grove, which upset No. 1 seed Stevenson in the Highland Park regional.
The Cougars (31-6) won the first game 25-21 before Palatine (28-9) bounced back with a 25-23 victory in the second game.
Vernon Hills gradually built a 17-11 lead in the third game as Palatine was without the services of senior Danny Matijevic, who left the game with an ankle injury very early in the final game.
The Pirates did manage to cut the gap to 18-14, but Vernon Hills junior Ryan Opitz (88-for-88 setting, 37 assists) assisted junior teammate Max Spiglanin's kill to boost the Cougars' lead back to 19-14.
Vernon Hills sophomore Lem Turner really came alive with 4 kills in game 3 as his kill set up match point with Palatine trailing 24-19.
Senior Chris Edwards put the finishing touches on the victory for Vernon Hills as he dropped an ace just over the net and in front of the defenders to clinch the regional crown.
Spiglanin led the Cougars' offensive attack with 16 kills on 31-for-37 hitting while junior teammate Michael Heinz had 11 kills on 17-for-21 hitting.
"We came into this match knowing it was going to be tough," said Spiglanin, whose team is the fifth regional boys volleyball champ in school history. "Our serving got them out of system and from there we just ran our offense and took care of business."
Vernon Hills coach Chris Curry was happy with the performance of his squad and he talked about the injury to Matijevic in the last game.
"I think he's their best outside hitter and he's a kid we did not serve at all night so it definitely caused them a great deal of stress and he (Matijevic) had been very effective," said Curry. "We started off as we typically do in the first set a little slow, but the kids fought through that. We had too many errors in the second and third set and we had to just settle down."
Palatine put together a solid effort down the stretch as tip shot by senior Kareem Anderson kept the Pirates' hopes alive and within reach at 20-16.
But the Pirates were unable to stop Vernon Hills' momentum despite the efforts of Palatine senior Brian Keough, who was 14-for-15 hitting with 6 kills. Anderson also had 6 kills for Palatine while junior teammate Jacob Niedzwicki added 5 kills.
"They (Vernon Hills) played their best volleyball that they could have played," said a disappointed Keough following the match. "We could have fought back, but the injury (to Matijevic) killed us."
Curry's team does not have much time to prepare, but he is optimistic heading into the sectional against Stevenson.
"We have to play at a high level and we took them to three games (during the regular season)," Curry said. "And if we reduce our errors we can put ourselves in a position to play with anybody in the sectional."
Palatine's Christian Frahm was 11-for-11 serving with an ace and 13 digs while sophomore teammate Tyler Kendzior was 10-for-10 serving for the Pirates with 3 aces.
Edwards was 10-for-10 with an ace for the Cougars. Heinz and Edwards had 11 digs apiece while Spiglanin and Matijevic had 9 digs each.
Palatine junior Kyle Obernesser was 70-for-75 setting with 20 assists. Palatine's Jerry Sommerfeld missed the match due to illness.