Girls volleyball: St. Charles East upset Huntley for sectional crown
St. Charles East entered this week's Class 4A Huntley sectional with a 22-14 record -- or more losses than the other three teams Belvidere North (31-3), Huntley (34-3) and St. Charles North (31-6) had combined.
It's no wonder Saints coach Jennie Kull picked the movie "Miracle" to show her team at her house Tuesday night.
Turns out the underdog role suits the Saints just fine, and they left Huntley with the miracle Kull hoped for after a thrilling 26-24, 18-25, 25-19 win over the Red Raiders, ranked No. 1 in the Daily Herald Top 20.
St. Charles East scored the final 8 points of the match to turn a 19-17 deficit in the third set into an improbable victory.
"Everyone was telling us we had no chance," Saints libero Emily Stallmann said. "But all day today we were ready to go. We were talking to each other in the hallways and pumping each other up. We were ready to go."
It's the Saints' 12th sectional championship -- ninth under Kull -- and first one since the 2011 team ended up taking third in state.
Kull was the first to admit she didn't see this one coming with a team led by Clemson-bound setter McKenna Slavik but without quite the firepower of some of her great teams from the past.
"At the beginning of the season we were hoping to be above .500," Kull said. "I call them a bunch of misfits who are loving to be together. It's kind of like a miracle and that's why we showed them the movie. The opportunity to play again is awesome."
That opportunity comes Friday night in the Class 4A Bartlett supersectional against Downers Grove North (28-11).
It's a match Huntley thought it would be playing in. The Red Raiders came on strong in the second half of the season including a win over Benet, and they rallied from a set down Monday to knock out St. Charles North.
Playing on its home court with a raucous crowd supporting them, the Red Raiders were about to rally again from a first-set loss, taking a 19-17 lead when Julia Johnson smashed a kill from the back row.
They didn't score again. After a kill from Anita Prybell gave the Saints the serve, Stallmann rattled off 7 straight to end a tight back-and-forth match that included 28 ties and 9 lead changes.
"You know it's a game of momentum when you make a couple mistakes at crucial times," said Huntley coach Karen Naymola, whose team missed three serves in the third set. "That doesn't help. That was a tough one. Not a great day to have an off game.
"St. Charles East has been in the sectional championship numerous times. This is the first time we've been in it since I've been here. I think they were a little more calm."
The mistakes for Huntley (35-4) started early with 8 hitting errors in the first set. Trailing 24-22, Huntley fought off 2 set points including a kill from Loren Alberts, but the Saints (24-14) scored the next two points on a slide kill from Kirsten Rogers and Slavik's winner on the third set point.
Huntley rebounded in the second set, taking the lead for good at 17-16 on Natalie Gaszynski's kill. Johnson tipped for the 25th point as Huntley ended on a 9-2 run and appeared to have the momentum heading to the third set.
"We scouted them, we watched a lot of film, we were just ready to take them on," Slavik said. "We knew what they were going to do. The second set may not have looked like that but we got our heads back together and really pushed through the third one."
A big swing from sophomore lefty Emma Konie put the Raiders ahead 9-6 early in the third set, and Kull called her first timeout down 18-16 after an ace from Alberts.
Huntley libero Sarah Zayas played despite an illness, and she had to leave the match late in the third set. Trailing 19-18 and with Stallman at the line, senior Sam Urban got the Saints going with a kill, then tooled the ball off Huntley's block and put down another ball for a 21-19 lead.
The Saints ran another slide play that Rogers terminated for a 22-19 lead, Huntley hit long, and then went under the net to make it 24-19. Urban ended the match with a kill after the Saints kept several tough balls alive including an off-balance dig from Slavik.
Urban led the Saints with 11 kills. At one point in the third set she tipped a shot over, and Kull yelled at her to swing harder. Urban got the message with 4 huge kills down the stretch.
"I knew her yelling at me would help me but everybody around me was helping," Urban said. "I knew I had to get it done."
"If we were going to go out, I wanted her to go out swinging," Kull said. "She's been swinging all year. Why not swing until we can't swing anymore? That's what we tried to do."
Rogers added 8 kills, Calli Gentry had 5 and Slavik set 26 assists. The Saints only hit 7 balls out all match; Huntley hit 18 out.
"Everybody was saying North-Huntley was the state championship match," Kull said. "I said you know what? Let's see what that looks like. Never count us out. And the kids believed. It was cool. It's all about their heart."
Johnson led Huntley with a match-high 15 kills, Konie had 11 and Alberts 10. Zayas and Taylor Jakubowski both had 23 digs, and Jakubowski set 28 assists.
"It just wasn't a good game for us," Naymola said. "But East came out ready to play, played smart. I think offensively we got a little intimidated by their defense and started trying too hard to try to place shots instead of swinging and running our offense. Our serve-receive wasn't what it has been so we had a hard time running our middles. When we can't run them it slows down our offense and we let them compete with us.
"We have the ability to compete with any team in the state of Illinois and they proved that all year. Unfortunately it didn't go our way tonight."