NORMAL — They may have placed fourth, but the New Athens Yellow Jackets left Redbird Arena after their first appearance in the state volleyball tournament feeling good about themselves and their future.
The Yellow Jackets were outlasted by Sciota West Prairie 18-25, 25-13, 25-22 Saturday in the third-place match of the Class 1A state tournament.
"I guess to finally say that out loud, 'Fourth in the state,' is pretty amazing,'" New Athens coach Kyla Patton said. "I just told my girls to stay humble and just appreciate this. Our school in volleyball had never even won a regional, so to win a regional, sectional and super-sectional and even be here is just an unbelievable opportunity."
The Yellow Jackets end their season with a 28-11 record. They'll return their entire squad with the exception of senior setter-hitter Jessica Crabtree next season.
"I'm ready to go," New Athens junior outside hitter Denae White said. "The season could start tomorrow, and I'd be fine with it."
The experience of playing in the state tournament could pay dividends for the Yellow Jackets' volleyball program.
"For so long, it was, 'Who is going to be the first team to win a girls regional in New Athens?"' Patton said. "Now they've taken that far beyond winning the first regional. Now in their heads they know that they can do it."
The success of the volleyball team also became a rallying point for the New Athens community.
"I guess our gym was full at school yesterday," Patton said. "Our administration kind of shut the school down a little bit as far as academics, and they streamed the game. I guess our whole town was in the gym and our athletic director said there were little girls crying after we lost.
"I hope it just blows up in our community with the excitement of girls sports and just sports in general, and it brings everybody together."
Aleen Dutkanych led the Yellow Jackets with 10 kills, followed by Abby Marlow with nine. Crabtree had seven kills, White contributed six and Anisa Al-Bori notched four.
White also had 18 digs, while Crabtree also had 19 assists.
West Prairie got 10 kills from Paige Webster, eight kills from Jennifer Schwerer and seven kills Jennifer Reedy.
The third-place finish was the best-ever finish for the Cyclones (31-7-2), who placed fourth in 2008.
"We collectively did everything we could in Game 3, it was nip and tuck," West Prairie coach Teri Paul said. "My heart is beating really fast, but it was wonderful. It was our mission to come down here and finish first, but since we weren't able to do that, our next goal was to come home with a win for West Prairie."
After letting nerves be a factor in a semifinal loss to Stewardson-Strasburg, the Yellow Jackets came out fired up in the first set against West Prairie.
"I really wanted to come back and just prove that we are here for a reason, that we deserve to be here," Crabtree said.
Marlow, Dutkanych, Alina Lance and Al-Bori all had kills to launch the Yellow Jackets out to 6-2 lead.
A kill by Marlow put the Yellow Jackets up 14-7.
Back-to-back aces by Kourtney Campbell, who had had four aces in the match, helped the Cyclones close the gap to 17-14.
The Yellow Jackets opened up a 22-15 cushion after a block by Lance and Marlow and a kill by Marlow.
A kill by Dutkanych took the Yellow Jackets to set point, which came on a kill by Crabtree.
The Cyclones were a different team in the second set, rolling out to a 10-2 lead and then cruising.
"I think we were scrappier in the second game," Webster said. "We were going for everything more. We knew we had to push through the second game to force a third."
In the third set, the Cyclones led 6-3 and 18-14, but the Yellow Jackets stormed back both times.
"I think we just had a little too much confidence going into that second (set) and they took advantage of it," Payton said. "My girls battled back in that third game and that shows their character. They've done that all year. They typically don't let a team take advantage of them, they'll come back and battle, and that's what I love about these girls. They never give up."
The Yellow Jackets tied the score at 7-7 and then took an 8-7 lead on an ace by Dutkanych.
West Prairie put together a five-point run to turn a 14-13 deficit into an 18-14 lead.
The Cyclones led 20-15 when the Yellow Jackets reeled off a six-point run with Dutkanych serving to go up 21-20.
The score was tied at 21-21 and 22-22 before West Prairie tallied the final three points with Webster serving.
The final point in the 1-hour, 9-minute match came on an alert kill by Reedy, who swatted a loose ball toward the back line where the Yellow Jackets' defense was unable to save it.
In the Class 1A state title match, (Rockford) Keith County Day repeated as champion with a 25-18, 25-17 victory over Stewardson-Strasburg.
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.