NORMAL — New Athens coach Kyla Patton tried to prepare her team for the big stage that is the state tournament by having them watch a scene from the movie, "Hoosiers."
The Yellow Jackets still were a little too late in shaking off the jitters as they lost 25-12, 25-23 to the Stewardson-Strasburg Comets on Friday in the semifinals of the Class 1A girls state volleyball tournament.
Patton took her team to the library before heading out for their first trip to state to show them a clip from the movie about a high school basketball team from a small town in Indiana.
"You know how they measured the net and measure the court and said, 'Hey, it's the same,"' Patton said. "I knew it was going to be like that, where they walk into Hinkle (Fieldhouse) and it's just overwhelming. I was like, 'Tomorrow is going to be the exact same way. You're going to walk in, and the ceiling is going to be high, but the court is going to be the same size."'
The Yellow Jackets found out that there is no way to really prepare for playing in front of a large crowd in a large venue like Illinois State University's Redbird Arena.
"I think we came out a little star struck," Patton said. "I think yesterday at practice here we were looking at the ceiling and couldn't believe how big the gym was.
"The first (set) our nerves kind of got in the way, but then the second (set) my girls played well as a team."
The Comets used a 16-4 surge to win the opening set of the match.
"I don't think you can," New Athens senior Jessica Crabtree said of preparing for the atmosphere at Redbird Arena. "We came here yesterday and we practiced, and it was just overwhelming being in the gym.
"And, game time is a lot harder to prepare for. The nerves are 10 times greater. It is just so much harder."
The Yellow Jackets (28-10) will play the Sciota West Prairie Cyclones (30-7-2) at 9 a.m. Saturday in the third-place match.
West Prairie pushed defending Class 1A state champion Rockford Keith Country Day to three sets before falling 16-25, 25-21, 17-25 on Friday in the other semifinal.
New Athens junior Aleen Dutkanych was confident that her squad would bounce back from the loss.
"I think now that we are used to everything we are going to come out hungry," Dutkanych said. "I hope we just dominate. I'm ready. Let's go."
The Comets (28-12) advance to the championship match, where they'll face Keith Country Day (38-3) at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
"We talked all season about how we wanted to make history this year because we have so much potential on the team and we work so well together," Comets setter Baylee Quast said. "We knew we had to get through this game first."
The Comets got nine kills from both Brttani Tabbert and Kendall Knop against the Yellow Jackets.
The Yellow Jackets had their usual balance at the net as Abby Marlow had five kills, Denae White and Crabtree had four kills and Anisa Al-Bori had three.
However, the Yellow Jackets ended up with as many attack errors (18) as kills (18) in the match.
Al-Bori had eight digs, while Crabtree and Jaycie Wahlig each had six assists.
The Comets led 9-5 in the first set after a kill by Quast, but the Yellow Jackets fought back to draw within 9-8 on kills by Dutkanych and Marlow.
That's when the bottom dropped out for the Yellow Jackets as the Comets got another kill by Quast, a block by Morgan Stremming and a tip by Knop to go up 13-8.
A four-point service run by Quast stretched the lead to 18-10.
The Comets closed out the first set on a six-point service run by Knop that was highlighted by two kills from both Knop and Becca Schlechte.
"Our passing has been pretty key all season, and we just couldn't get a pass up to our setter, so we couldn't make a play," Patton said. "I think it got into our heads a little bit, and they took advantage of it like they should."
The Yellow Jackets regrouped and jumped out to a 7-3 lead in the second set thanks to kills by White and Marlow and an ace by Marlow.
The Comets rallied to pull in front 17-13, but the Yellow Jackets tied the score at 19-19 after a kill by Crabtree and an attack error by Quast.
A kill from Al-Bori and tip by Dutkanych put the Yellow Jackets ahead 23-22, but the Comets scored the next three points on a service error and two attack errors by the Yellow Jackets.
"They play on their toes," Patton said of Stewardson-Strasburg. "I think that was the biggest thing we saw. They were just anticipating everything and they looked awesome."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.