IL state girls' volleyball champions 2014

The girls’ volleyball championships in classes 1A through 4A took place today at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal.

Class 1A: Keith Country Day d. Hartsburg-Emden

  • For Hartsburg (H.-Emden), head coach Jennifer Hayes, assistant Jessie Eeten
  • For Rockford (Keith Country Day), head coach Steve Williams, assistants Jordan Haverly & Tammi Haverly

Congratulations to the Keith Country Day Lady Cougars (39-2), who defeated the Stags from Hartsburg-Emden (30-10), 25-11, 25-23, to win the Class 1A state title in girls’ volleyball.

It was Steve Williams’s first state championship as a head coach, though he worked as an assistant coach at St Francis in Wheaton before coming to Keith Country Day, which is located in Rockford.

Even the longest point of the match, which was won by Hartsburg-Emden in the first set, couldn’t take the overall momentum of the match away from Keith Country Day. The hardest Stag hitters just couldn’t buy a kill off the defense brought by the Lady Cougars.

The strength of individual Lady Cougar players is stunning. Zoe Nuñez, a 5’10” setter with a whopping 785 assists this year before the championship weekend, received an offer from a Big Ten university when she was still in eighth grade. As a freshman, she has already received more than 50 recruiting letters from colleges.

Senior Iman McGary, a 5’11” senior, will play next year in a Division I program at the University of Connecticut. As an outside hitter, McGary covered everything and blasted Hartem off the court from every angle. UConn’s got a great player coming, one who finished the season with about 400 kills, 11 of which were added in today’s championship match. After that many, people start to lose track.

Hartem, which has a total of 69 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12, played close in the second set, pulling out a few excellent digs and blocks, especially a key block by Lexi Strange at the net when both teams were in the 20s. She had 9 digs in the match, tying her single-match high for the season. But ultimately, the set ended on an anticlimactic double hit by Hartem, causing Keith Country Day fans to start cheering about their three-peat.

The Lady Cougars won the state championship last year and in 2012, both times under head coach Lynn Cesario.

Class 2A: Deer Creek-Mackinaw d. Dakota

  • For Mackinaw (Deer Creek-M.), head coach Brandon Mueller, assistant Kelsey Hough
  • For Dakota, head coach Shannon Williams, assistants Tyler Benning & Courtney Gaulrapp

Lauren Anderson’s 10th kill won the third set, 25-23, and Deer Creek-Mackinaw’s (36-3) second state championship in girls’ volleyball against Dakota (37-5) at the Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University, just a few miles from their home. She also had a kill to put the second set in the books.

Anderson is a 5’10” senior and headed for a certain career in Division I volleyball. Her play in the second set was instrumental in shifting the momentum away from Dakota long enough to allow Dee-Mack to overtake the Lady Chiefs in the set. Dakota had handed Dee-Mack their worst single-set point total all season in the first set of this match, winning 25-10. Before this, the Lady Indians had never been held to fewer than 17 points in a single set. But once they got that out of the way, Dee-Mack was unstoppable, as was Dakota.

With great play, however, comes great risk. Anderson had a number of service errors, including one in the third set, which she traded with Dakota’s Katie Thompson, tying the decisive set at 20. Anderson’s serve went into the net for the second time out of three serves, while Thompson’s went long.

In the second set, before she stepped it up, Anderson had trouble finding an opening. But it wasn’t really her fault: For example, Dakota’s Ashley Porter lifted her team to an 8-5 lead as she went down for a dig off of what could have easily been the best ball Anderson had hit all year. Porter had 225 kills this season before the championship weekend, and with teammate Jaycee Cleaver, who had 289 herself, Dakota and Dee-Mack went neck-and-neck for the rest of the match.

After Dee-Mack lost that point, Anderson came right back on the next play and sent a kill right between two blockers, and nobody got to that one, she made sure. Two plays later, Dakota’s Rachel Buck, who had 231 kills before this weekend, second only to Cleaver’s 245, got one of her best kills in the match, right through Dee-Mack’s defense.

That was how this match went, back and forth, from the middle of the second set. Then, with both teams having 20 or more points and playing aggressively, the end of the third set turned into a nail-biting defensive struggle—because neither offense was missing very often.

That was definitely a turnaround from the first set, where Dee-Mack looked uncharacteristically sloppy. As a sign of good coaching, Dakota had anticipated Anderson’s strength and sent two or even three blockers to greet her at the net every time she went for a kill. Sometimes she found a lane, sometimes she used the blockers to deflect the ball out of bounds, and sometimes she had the ball pushed right back at her.

The third set was tied at 12, 14, 19, 21, and 23. Dee-Mack would take the lead, and Dakota would get it right back. It was anybody’s game at this point, but only two points separated either team from a state championship. In a head-to-head battle between two top players, Cleaver went up to block a ball that was destined to score for Dee-Mack, struck by 6’0″ junior Addie Patton. On the next play, Patton answered with a kill that did go through.

Then Patton continued with a gorgeous serve, placing the ball softly in the middle of Dakota’s side. No one could get to Dee-Mack’s fifth service ace of the match. A play later, it was over with Anderson exploding at the net.

Dee-Mack beat Dakota in the 2012 championship game as well, under coach Mike Bolhuis. Dakota coach Shannon Williams, in a very young career, has built quite a program at Dakota. Her team won the Class 1A championship in 2011 and fell just one game short in 2012. In an unfortunate stroke of luck, the team drew Immaculate Conception in the sectional semifinal round last year. IC went on to beat Edwards County in two sets in last year’s championship game after eliminating the Lady Chiefs in the sectional round.

Class 3A: St Francis d. Joliet Catholic Academy

  • For Wheaton (St. Francis), head coach Peg Kopec, assistants Lisa Ston, Dave Boze, Erin Kopec & Kate Rodriguez
  • For Joliet (Catholic Academy), head coach Christine Scheibe, assistants Rhyen Staley, Kara Camarda, Kathy Stec, Mary Lou Catalani & Bill Scheibe

St Francis coach Peg Kopec had won 1,195 volleyball matches before this weekend, and she adds, to that total, two, the latest coming in the championship game against Joliet Catholic, 25-18, 25-23, to claim the school’s 11th state championship.

Kopec has been at St Francis for 39 years and has won more than 30 games every year since 1985. This year’s team, she said, “really grew throughout the season. Different teams have different characteristics, and this one, I think, is a typical St Francis one—we have a lot of traditions, and they have embraced all of them.”

Those traditions include not just winning state championships but doing so while wearing the team’s special state championship jersey. “To Mary [Boken], her sister wore that jersey as well,” she said. “We have a lot of family.”

On the court, though, St Francis was all business, moving right from the end of one play to the serve on the next. Joliet Catholic kept the game close on the scoreboard but gave the sense they were trailing by a wide margin throughout the match.

St Francis jumped out to an early lead, 8-1, and never trailed in the first set. At one point, Joliet Catholic, with their star setter, 5’10” senior Mary Murphy, had more kills than St Francis, 10-9. Unfortunately, they also had more unforced errors. Against a well practiced team and a champion coach like Kopec, that’s just not going to do it.

The second set was closer, on both the court and scoreboard. Even though St Francis’s Molly Haggerty slammed one so explosively that even seeing it was difficult, let alone digging it up, to put the Spartans up 6-2, Joliet Catholic eventually tied the set at 7. The Saints went on a short run following a kill from Murphy, who’ll play next year at Western Michigan, as St Francis was unable to return a serve.

The Saints started the season 9-12. After a few line-up changes and the return of healthy players, the second half of the year was a complete turnaround. With about 10 line-up changes, the Saints posted a 16-4 record in the second half.

But it was tough to defend against the multi-talented St Francis team, which just knows how to win state titles. If blockers focused on Haggerty, St Francis could simply call upon the talents of one of the Malloy twins, Kamryn or Delaney. They’re 5’11” and 6’0″ and both sophomores. At one point, Kamryn lined up on the sideline, struck her seventh kill in the match right down the line, and then served up an ace. She had the second-highest single-match ace total this season before this weekend, 5, and she was also second only to Haggerty in kills this season with 220.

Down the stretch, Boken, a 6’2″ senior, stepped it up, making a powerful kill from the left, across the court, to put St Francis up 22-18. A few plays later, even as the strong defense from Joliet Catholic saved a ball that looked like it was headed into the seats, Boken killed after a few volleys.

Joliet Catholic was scrappy on the court, even up to the very end, but St Francis just had too many weapons, I think. Players were at the top of their game.

“My teammates are everything to me,” Boken said. “I would not be able to do anything I do without them. Dani Messa [who set the ball an incredible 708 times this season before the championship weekend] is an amazing setter. We have some great serve receivers, digs. Everyone played their part.”

How do you prepare the team for the momentum shift that almost happened in the second set? “We have a really tough schedule throughout the year,” Kopec said after the match. “And they’ve played some nationally ranked teams many times throughout the season. And that, I think, really helps prepare you for that. But for a team that’s back at you, you’ve got to give it everything you can.”

And so they did. Congratulations to the Spartans of St Francis High School in Wheaton on a great victory and this year’s Class 3A state championship.

Class 4A: Benet Academy d. Libertyville

  • For Lisle (Benet Academy), head coach Brad Baker, assistants Kyle Reid, Kim Sayers & Brianne Riley
  • For Libertyville, head coach Greg Loika, assistants Jennifer Smith, Adam Stuart, Katti Jablenski & Jorge Tamayo

The Redwings from Benet Academy in Lisle, under coach Brad Baker, are the 11th ranked team in the nation, and tonight we saw why that is. Congratulations on a great victory, a school record 41st victory this year, and on winning the school’s third 4A state title in four years.

Yes, Libertyville had a few unforced errors in the match, uncharacteristic at this level, including a few double hits, net violations, and even a rotation violation. But the headline here wasn’t Libertyville’s errors but Benet’s constant momentum, drive, and desire, hungry as they were for the state championship.

Benet will graduate nine seniors at the end of this year, and based on the school’s average ACT score of 28.8, most of them will be headed to some pretty good colleges. Rachel Fara will head to Northwestern University, Meghan Weber to Wright State, and Natalie Canulli to Penn State. Libertyville’s Alex Basler is headed to Cornell University.

Canulli, Benet’s libero, had 16 digs on the night, keeping the ball in play for the team’s talented front line.

“I just wanted to get every ball up, be a grinder and … help my team out, to put the ball down,” she told the IHSA’s Michelle McMahon. And down went most of the balls coming off her digs.

Leading the power attack for Benet, at least in the first set, was 5’10” sophomore Veronica Snelling, who had five kills in the set. On the season, her left-handed strike gave her 252 kills before the state tournament, the second-highest on the team. Within the first 10 points of the match, she had already made 2 kills, one down the line and one into the middle of the court, the so-called “no man’s land” of volleyball.

And strong kills mean flawless assists, which Benet’s setters delivered in what seemed like an effortless and routine manner. Good setters anchor the team and keep the offense running, including Sara Nielsen, a 6’0″ sophomore—yes, a sophomore—who came into the tournament with 898 assists this year. I don’t even have an adjective to describe that number.

It’s players like Nielsen that will keep this team running after the seniors move on from this year’s team.

“You can never replace the kids, year after year,” Benet coach Brad Baker said. His eight years at Benet have given him a 298-30 record as a head coach. “We have to try to find new kids that have new abilities. We’re not going to replace these seniors, that’s for sure.”

Benet’s only loss this year came to Mother McAuley on Oct 18, which has happened to many great teams. They made up for it, though, in a super-sectional match that was akin to a 20-inning baseball game, defeating Mother McAuley, 27-25, 37-35. Tonight Benet defeated Libertyville in straight sets, 25-10, 25-10.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.