NORMAL — They'd always been able to right themselves whenever they'd fallen behind in the postseason, but this time there was no comeback for the O'Fallon Panthers.
Regan Coughlin and Machayla Leonard each had five kills in leading the Normal Community Ironmen past the Panthers 25-16, 25-11 on Thursday in the championship match of the Class 4A Normal West Sectional.
Playing in an unknown and hostile environment, nerves were a factor for the Panthers.
"Our serve receive totally tanked, and I think that set the tone immediately where they were just completely rattled,'' O'Fallon coach Melissa Massey said. "It's hard to come to a school where you are not familiar playing. That's the bottom line. We didn't adjust.''
The Ironmen benefited from having played on the court at Normal West several times this season, including Tuesday night during a sectional semifinal win over the host team.
"I think we are definitely at an advantage playing here,'' Normal Community coach Christine Konopasek. "We played Normal West here in conference, we played in our city here this year. They know this gym. For not being at home, this is as close to home as we can be.''
The Ironmen (24-14) will be home in their next match. They advance to play Lisle Benet Academy at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Normal Community Super-Sectional.
The Panthers end their season at 29-10. They advanced to the sectional for the second straight year, which Massey sees as a good start in developing a track record as one of the top volleyball programs in the metro-east.
"I told the girls that,'' Massey said. "We are trying to set an example at this school that Belleville West has set, that Belleville East has set, that Edwardsville has set. We're trying to get our name out there all the time, and not just be that fluke year. We don't want to be that anymore.
"They don't understand that they are a part of that, but they are. They are setting a different kind of precedent for our program.''
Nzingha Clarke led the Panthers with eight kills. She dominated at the net early in the first game, but the Ironmen were able to keep her from controlling matters for extended periods with their tough serving.
The Ironmen had seven aces in the match.
"That was the goal,'' Konopasek said. "We'd heard really, really impressive things about (Clarke), so our objective was to keep her minimized. If we could make it so she wasn't a huge factor, then we thought we could come out on top.
"I think we really served tough, but even in serving tough, she was dominate when she was in the front row. She's a good, good player.''
Clarke started the match with a kill, but the Ironmen still grabbed a 7-3 lead on an ace by Coughlin.
Clarke had a well-placed tip and then a kill to draw the Panthers within 10-9.
The Ironmen surged ahead 16-11 behind the net play of Leonard and then opened up a 24-16 lead on a three-point service run by Hannah Sholtis.
Game point came on a kill by Leonard.
Massey said she was confident that the Panthers would rally back in the second game like they'd done against Edwardsville on Tuesday.
"I said, 'Hey, we've been here before, this is nothing we haven't been through,''' Massey said. "Seriously, that whole second game I had confidence they were going to come back, but I don't know if they believed it. You start to see it slipping through your fingers and you can't regain that confidence.
"The game was so fast-paced that we didn't have time to get ourselves back together.''
The Panthers fell behind 6-3 in the second game despite kills from Clarke and Aubrey Keilbach.
The Ironmen led 10-5 before two kills by Clarke drew them within 11-8.
They then went up 16-9 on a kill by Abby Kreuser.
Normal's Micki Quakenbush served up the final six points, including two aces.
The Panthers will lose six seniors -- Clarke, Elle Moeller, Sami Bickel, Rachel McCulley, Kelsi Scaiefe and Jessie Baldus -- to graduation.
"This has probably been my most favorite team to coach,'' Massey said. "They have been the most incredible kids on and off the court. We are a family, and I couldn't be more proud of what they did this season.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.