This fall's Upstate Eight Conference River Division girls volleyball race has been full of hard-fought 3-set matches with the top four teams taking turns knocking each other off.
It's made for a highly entertaining, hotly contested race, starting with St. Charles North's 3-set win over St. Charles East and Batavia's 3-setter over Geneva followed by the Vikings knocking off St. Charles North in three.
But on the final night of the River race Tuesday and with Geneva and St. Charles East playing for a share of the crown, the Saints didn't let the drama get that far. They defended their home court with a 25-23, 25-19 win to grab a share of the crown with St. Charles North.
"It's St. Charles, we both have really good teams," Saints setter Carly Jimenez said. "Yeah, it's bittersweet (to tie for first) but at least St. Charles got it. That's the way we looked at it."
As they have lately, including a victory over Waubonsie Valley on Monday, St. Charles East (28-6, 5-1) has been playing good volleyball despite missing middles Mikaela Mosquera and Ashley Bulluck.
Both are expected back either later this week or next week when the postseason begins. Meanwhile, outside Alex Mazanke has filled in at a position she hasn't played since seventh grade.
"We've had a lot of girls step up to take the places of girls who are injured and it's really helped us out because they've done a nice job out there," Saints junior outside Meagan Smith said.
Geneva (22-8, 4-2) wound up sharing third place with Batavia. The Vikings were their own worst enemy at times Tuesday, committing 7 hitting errors in the second game including a stretch of three in the final five points -- plus a serving error -- as the Saints broke open a tight 20-19 set by scoring the last five points.
"All night we were walking through mud trying to get some rhythm and some momentum for what we want to do," Geneva coach KC Johnsen said. "We're usually a very good ball control team. We didn't serve-receive as well as we normally do. I don't know how many hitting errors we had but it was too many. It's hard to beat a good team if you make that many errors."
The Vikings led for much of Game 1, going up 19-17 when Megan Cameron set Maddie Courter for a kill. Geneva's final lead came at 22-21 when Jimenez started a 4-1 closing kick for the Saints by finding Megan Schildmeyer.
Those same two connected on the next point for a 23-22 Saints lead. Schildmeyer closed the set on a cross-court kill that the referees hesitated before calling the ball good.
"When we control the ball we are going to be successful," Saints coach Jennie Kull said. "We had it in system a lot. Our passers were great tonight. And we served tough."
"We're not a huge physical team so we have to use what we have and be smart with the ball and place it and not make those stupid errors," Anne Hughes said. "I think we're very smart."
After a back-and-forth start to Game 2, the Saints scored six straight points with Hughes serving to lead 13-8. Freshman Grace Loberg tried to rally Geneva with 6 kills in the second game, and one of those got the Vikings as close as 18-17.
But the Saints never let go of their lead, and Hughes provided one of the highlights with an ace down the left sideline for a 24-19 lead before one more Geneva hitting error ended the match.
"Coach Kull told me to serve zone one which was right down the line," Hughes said. "I just served my hardest to get them out of system and I got an ace. I'm happy for both North and us."
Hughes (21 digs, 2 aces), Jimenez (18 assists, 11 digs, 3 blocks), Smith (7 kills) and Schildmeyer (6 kills, 3 aces) paced the Saints.
"I'm really pleased with how the kids played," Kull said. "They have been coming through and each day someone else is stepping up. That's been awesome."
Loberg (11 kills), Kelsey Wicinski (26 digs), Ally Barrett (5 blocks) and Taylor Marmitt (5 blocks) led Geneva.
"This is the wrong team to have a bad game against," Johnsen said. "Give them credit, maybe they had more to do than us being out of sync. We were really off. If they did that to us, good for them. If we did it to ourselves, we can fix it."