COLLINSVILLE — They didn't have the same key players and they didn't play with quite the same style, but the O'Fallon Panthers still managed to repeat as regional champions.
Nzingha Clarke had 20 kills and Aubrey Keilbach had 15 kills and 15 digs as the Panthers beat the Belleville West Maroons 25-23, 23-25, 25-19 on Thursday in the championship match of the Class 4A Collinsville Volleyball Regional.
"I don't think people thought we'd be back,'' Keilbach said. "We lost some pretty good players, but we were ready. We were ready right when the season started. We knew we wanted to take regionals.''
The Panthers lost All-Stater Katie Roustio to graduation, but they were able to reload this year by going to a more diverse net attack and a scrappy defense.
"It feels amazing,'' O'Fallon coach Melissa Massey said. "These girls have worked so hard to almost make people understand that they are not forgotten.
"They work just as hard without Katie, who was a great person for our program. We're just trying to establish something different for O'Fallon from now on.''
The Panthers (28-9) will play the Edwardsville Tigers (23-14) next Tuesday in the Normal West Sectional. The match will be played at yet to be determined site in the metro-east.
The second-seeded Tigers beat the top-seeded Quincy Blue Devils 25-17, 27-25 on Thursday in the championship match of the Quincy Regional.
The second-seeded Panthers turned the tables on the top-seeded Maroons, who had beaten them 25-17, 25-21 earlier this season.
"We talked before the game that we had to stick together as a team, and I think that really clicked in the third game,'' Keilbach said. "That realization that we had to stay together and push, and that's what we did.''
The Maroons led 13-11 in the third game before a kill by Clarke and then a five-point service run by libero Renae Mueller enabled the Panthers to charge in front 17-13.
Sami Bickel had a block, Keilbach had a kill and a left-handed tip during the run.
"I think at some point in that third game we realized what the stakes were here, and we tightened up a little bit,'' West coach Austin Betz said. "We weren't playing bad. Emotionally we didn't leave anything out there. We just weren't playing real consistent and we never really got our confidence back after they went on that run.''
A kill by Mackenzie Koester pushed the Panthers' advantage to 21-17.
The Maroons closed the gap to 22-19, but a kill by Clarke, a tip by Clarke and kill by Koester put away the match.
"Of course, Nzingha is our go-to,'' Massey said. "Everybody hones in on her, and we get that, but she always does such a great job of mixing it up and moving it around. She can just jump over anybody's block, I think.''
Massey said her team's defense was the key to the match. Moeller added 13 digs.
"I felt like our passing and serve receive was just stellar with my outside Aubrey and my libero Renae,'' Massey said. "I can't say enough good things about what they did tonight. They just did an amazing job.''
Keilbach said defense was a major focus coming into the match.
"That was our main thing in our practices,'' Keilbach said. "We were pushing hard to make sure we cleaned up our defense. We know we can run our offense if our defense is strong.''
The Maroons got 11 kills from Toni Fields, eight kills from Kayla Juenger and six kills from Sarah Caponi and Zoe Zeiter.
The Maroons end their season at 24-13.
"Honestly, I don't think anybody was expecting us to do much after last season,'' Betz said. "We graduated Sara Stevenson, our setter, and Taylor Puuri, who was one of our leading attackers. We had to rely on some really young girls this year, and to finish 24-13 is pretty good.
"We have a bright future, too. We have a lot of good, young players coming back.''
The Panthers trailed 15-9 in the first game, but rallied to go up 19-18 on an ace by Anne Britton.
The Maroons tied it at 22-22 and 23-23 before having a service error. Game point came on a net violation by the Maroons.
The Maroons had five service errors in the first game.
"When you lose 25-23 with five missed serves, it's hard to swallow,'' Betz said. "We came out on fire the second game after losing the first game.''
The Maroons rolled out to an 11-4 lead in the second game.
The Panthers fought back to tie the game at 21-21 on a kill by Clarke and 23-23 on another kill by Clarke.
An attack error by the Panthers followed by a kill by Juenger forced a third game.
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.