Forced to a third and deciding game Friday at the Class 3A Civic Memorial Volleyball Super-Sectional, the Althoff Crusaders overcame the challenge of the Mount Zion Braves.
Junior all-state middle hitter Karinna Gall collected seven of her match-high 17 kills and the Crusaders played near perfect defense to defeat Mount Zion 25-18, 23-25, 25-16 to earn a third straight trip to the IHSA State Volleyball Tournament.
Stunned by a courageous rally by the Braves, who rallied from deficits of 19-12 and 22-17 to win the second game, the defending state champion Crusaders used a four-point service run by junior Claire Franke to take command.
Minutes later two kills by Gall and an ace by Brandi Baldus increased the Althoff advantage to 19-11. Mount Zion (29-11) would get no closer than six points the rest of the night as Althoff (36-4) clinched a third straight trip to Redbird Arena in Normal.
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“This was the super-sectional and its not supposed to be easy. We didn’t expect it to be because Mount Zion has a great program and they played great tonight,’’ Althoff coach Tony Miner said. “They improved their serve-receiving in the second game and we got a little out of sync when they came back.
“But we responded well. I thought we started to return serve better in that game and our defense was really something. I mean we had players diving on the floor and making returns with one arm. It was a great effort.’’
That great effort earned Althoff the 12th trip to the state volleyball tournament in school history. Third at the Class 2A state tournament in 2016 before winning the Class 3A title a year ago, the Crusaders will take on Chicago Latin in the second of two state semi-finals beginning at Redbird Arena 5:30 p.m. Friday.
.”We just told each other we had to pick it up after the second game,’’ Gall said during the post game celebration. “Was I ever worried? Not really. I have a lot of confidence in my teammates that we could come out on top. I can’t tell you what it means to be going back to state for a third year in a row.’’
Althoff looked like it would make quick work of the Braves early in the match. With Gall and Mia Orlet providing four-point service runs and Gall, Katie Wemhoener and Grace Strieker adding kills and solid blocking at the net, Althoff built a big early lead then clinched game one on a kill by Gall.
A combination block by Wemhoener and Nicky Hampton keyed a four-point run early in game two as Althoff continue to control the match. But Mount Zion rallied.
A five-point run by Karlee McAtee, which included kills by Dayna Kennedy and Ali Vaughn, cut the Crusaders’ lead to 19-17. A block by Hampton and an ace by Wemhoener gave Althoff a 22-17 lead berfore the Braves went on a six-point run to take a 23-22 lead.
Seconds later, Kennedy pounded a kill up the middle to give the Braves a 25-23 win which tied the match.
“We had a pretty good defensive game plan and when we started to return serve better we got back in the match,’’ Braves coach Jay McAtee said.. “Early in the season we had trouble closing games out but in the last four weeks we had done a better job. We did that in the second game.
“I’m very proud by how my team battled back. But they (Althoff) are pretty good.’’
With Gall having a hand in five of the first six points, Althoff jumped out to a quick lead in game three. Mount Zion tied it briefly but a kill by Hampton, a combined bock by Wemhoener and Hampton and a kill by Lauren Borik put Althoff ahead for good at 10-7.
“We’re going to enjoy this one,’’ Miner said. “The pressure of lose and go home is off of us now. We’ve got a week to prepare and get ready for the state tournament. I’m just very proud of this team. It’s been a team effort.’’