O'FALLON — The O'Fallon Panthers are starting to turn some heads in what many people probably thought was a rebuilding year for them.
Aubrey Keilbach had six kills and two blocks and Nzingha Clarke had five kills and one block as the Panthers beat the Belleville East Lancers 25-18, 25-16 Tuesday in a Southwestern Conference volleyball match.
"People kind of forget about us or underestimate us, but we come out strong and we're ready to play," said Keilbach, a junior outside hitter.
The Panthers lost All-Stater Katie Roustio to graduation, but they've gotten off to a 10-1 start with their lone loss coming to Mater Dei.
"I think a lot of people when they come here are questioning, 'What are they going to do without Katie,"' O'Fallon coach Melissa Massey said. "I think the girls have done a really good job of adjusting to that. I can't complain. They are doing really well.
"We've made some lineup changes, and we're liking what we are seeing."
The Panthers have moved senior Jessie Baldus to libero.
"She is normally our starting outside hitter, but she had a ligament tear in her shoulder," Massey said. "It's almost been a blessing in disguise because she works that back court like somebody we haven't seen in a long time. We're really excited to have her back there."
Keilbach said the Panthers have worked hard on developing their teamwork.
"I love my team this year," Keilbach said. "We're really close and we're good with picking each other up. There's not a single negative person out there on the court. Everybody is picking each other up every game."
The Lancers fell to 8-4-1 overall, 2-1 in the Southwestern Conference.
"We just could not get into sync at all tonight," East coach Stacey Posey said. "I don't know if it was because we had such a big week last week. We played eight matches last week. Just mentally we were not into the match."
The Panthers started off strong in both games. They bolted out to a 8-1 lead in the first game and a 6-1 lead in the second game.
"We played East in the summer league, and we knew that they're good competition," Keilbach said. "We mentally prepared ourselves before the game to really bring it."
In the first game, Becca Althoff served up six straight points in leading the Panthers out to a 7-0 lead.
Clarke, a senior, had two kills and a block during the early surge.
The Lancers fought back to tie the score at 8-8 on a kill by Jozlynn Brooks.
A kill and a dink by Keilbach and an ace by Elle Moeller enabled the Panthers regain the lead, 13-8.
The Panthers opened up a 19-12 lead on a kill by freshman Mackenzie Koester and back-to-back attack errors by the Lancers.
A block by Keilbach took the Panthers to 24-15.
"She's a very steady player," Massey said of Keilbach. "What are going to do with that girl? She's a very strong six-rotation player, and I'm glad she's on our side."
The Lancers staved off game three times, including an ace by Montia Mosby, before a kill by Keilbach scored the Panthers' 25th point.
Althoff had a five-point service run at the start of the second game.
The Lancers closed the gap to 9-7 on a kill by Shelby Ridgeway, but the Panthers pulled out to an 14-7 lead after three straight unforced errors by East.
Katey Sauerwein had to back-to-back service aces to get the Lancers within 18-12, but Panthers went up 24-16 after kills from Anna Strake and Keilbach.
Match point came on a service error by the Lancers, who had 21 unforced errors, including 12 attack errors and five service errors.
"They can be fixed," Posey said. "My girls -- the personality of this team -- take responsibility. That was on us. We made those mistakes. Not to take anything away from O'Fallon because they played well, but we made the mistakes. We were half a step slow on every single defensive play all night long."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.