NORMAL — Though they're no strangers to the state volleyball tournament, the challenge is a little greater this year for the Central Cougars in their first appearance as a Class 3A team.
The Cougars (35-5) will play the Wheaton St. Francis Spartans (37-3) at 6 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in the semifinals of the Class 3A State Tournament.
"Since I have been here, it's the 10th time (going to state) and I know we went once before that,'' Central coach Jim Cook said. "This our first year in 3A with the bigger schools, and it's going to be tougher. I know that, but we're going to play hard.''
The Cougars have a difficult draw in the defending state champion Spartans, whose three losses this season have all come against (Chicago) Mother McAuley, the top-ranked team in Class 4A and ranked ninth in the nation by MaxPreps.com
The last of those three meetings went three sets with Mother McAuley outlasting St. Francis 25-9, 28-30, 30-28.
"I know all the things I have been told about Wheaton St. Francis and I hear how good they are ranked in the nation. We are going to go up and play hard and see what can happen,'' Cook said.
Cook and St. Francis coach Peg Kopec have combined to win 11 state titles. Cooks' squads won state championships in 1996 and 2005, while Kopec's squads have captured five state titles in the last 10 years.
The Spartans are led by 6-foot-1 sophomore Molly Haggerty, who has a team-leading 319 kills and 281 digs.
Haggerty's sister, Maddie, a 6-foot-2 senior, has 144 kills and 159 digs.
Both Maddie and Molly plan to follow their older sister, Meghan Haggerty, to the University of Nebraska.
The Spartans also have 6-foot-1 junior Mary Boken, who has 206 kills.
"It's scary, but I like playing teams that we know are really good,'' Central middle hitter Maddie Timmermann said. "We don't get into the game thinking we are going to win, and then we play down. If we know we're playing a hard team, then we'll play with more fire than we did before.''
Timmermann signed with Maryville University before heading to state on a bus Thursday morning.
"It's a really good academic school and it's close to home. Those are the main two reasons,'' Timmermann said of her choice.
The Cougars entered this season knowing the road to state tournament would be tougher as a Class 3A team.
"We knew it was going to really hard because we were in 3A and we had to get past Mater Dei,'' Timmermann said. "We had to work 10 times harder than we did before, and that's what we did.''
The Cougars knocked off Mater Dei, which had beaten them earlier in the season, 25-21, 25-19 in the championship match of the Triad Regional.
"We came out with a lot more fire than we did last time,'' Timmermann said. "We were like, 'Oh, it's Mater Dei,' and we kind of got scared and we backed down. We didn't do that last time, and I think that made the difference.''
Cook said the key for the Cougars is staying aggressive.
The Cougars pack a punch at the net with Timmermann (419 kills), Maisie Kampwerth (170 kills), Lydia Rehkemper (163 kills), Makenzie Jackson (125 kills) and Kendra Wilken (85 kills).
"When we play our best, we are hitting the ball hard,'' Cook said. "When we seem to let down, we decide to tip.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.