HIGHLAND — History repeated itself at the Highland Bulldog Invitational as the top three teams from last year -- the Central Cougars, the O'Fallon Panthers and the host Bulldogs -- finished in the same order this season in the eight-team, round-robin volleyball tournament.
The Central Cougars took first place for the third straight year by winning all five of their matches without dropping a single game.
"This tournament is a big confidence booster for us," said Central senior middle hitter Maddie Timmermann, who was selected to the all-tournament team for the third consecutive year. "We need to come out strong and work hard because it gets us going for the end of our season."
Central coach Jim Cook was unhappy about his team's unforced errors in the tourney until the Cougars put on a display of nearly mistake-free power volleyball in a 25-8, 25-13 win over Vandalia in their final match.
"We passed, and when we pass, we can hit," Cook said. "I think we just floated into this game and kept things going our way. Much less unforced errors.
"The consistency of the passers getting the pass where it was supposed to be and the setters getting the sets where they are supposed to be was much better."
Timmermann said she can understand why Cook gets upset when the Cougars make mistakes that a veteran squad shouldn't make.
"He gets a little frustrated because sometimes we get a little lazy and start going through the motions," Timmermann said. "When we play teams that we know we can beat, we have to work harder. We can't let down."
Timmermann had nine kills against Vandalia.
"That was probably the best we played this weekend," Timmermann said. "The main reason is because we talked more. We were up the whole time."
In addition to Timmermann, Cook said libero Taylor Rakers and defensive specialist Sophie Rickhoff played well at Highland.
"They very seldom get any kind of credit for it, but they played some pretty good defense," Cook said. "I think they played pretty consistent."
The Cougars' toughest match came against O'Fallon on Saturday morning. The Cougars fought off the Panthers 25-15, 27-25.
"We were horrible that first match in the morning, so I wish we would have played them later," said O'Fallon coach Melissa Massey, whose team placed second for the second straight year.
The Panthers went through their third change at libero this season with sophomore Becca Althoff being the latest to fill the role.
"I thought she did an awesome job controlling the backcourt," Massey said. "Those are big shoes to fill, but she did a good job."
Massey also pointed to junior outside hitter Aubrey Keilbach, a six-rotation player, and senior middle hitter Nzingha Clarke as having strong tournaments. Both players were selected to the all-tournament team.
"We had our ups and downs, but for the most part we played pretty steady," Massey said.
The host Bulldogs placed third for the third time in four years.
Highland coach Tina Beyer has only two seniors -- right-side hitter Morgan Schniers and defensive specialist Shannon Frank -- on her squad.
While the future looks bright, Beyers feels like the Bulldogs have the talent to accomplish some big things now.
"We lost seven from last year, but I just feel like we have a strong team," Beyers said. "We've been very up and down, and maybe that is due to lack of experience.
"But, I just hate that phrase. I feel like there is a lot of good talent there. We're just struggling to put it all together."
The Bulldogs have had a habit of going three games in a lot of their matches this season. They fell to O'Fallon 25-13, 14-25, 16-14 and beat Carbondale 18-25, 25-20, 15-13 in the tournament.
"It feels like we've gone three every match this year," Beyers said. "It doesn't matter if it's a good team or a bad team. We just go three with everybody. So we're up and down.
"I thought we played better this weekend. I was pleased. I felt like we had a little more fire in our bellies, a little bit more aggressiveness. We did a little bit better defensively. And, our offense has stayed strong. We've got big hitters."
Both of Highland's middle hitters -- junior Olivia LaPorta and sophomore Haley McSparin -- were chosen to the all-tournament team.
Rounding out the all-tournament team were Wesclin setter Ally Isenhower, Carbondale outside hitter McKena Miller and Vandalia outside hitter Megan Godoyo.
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.