Devastating kills by an array of players and two long service runs by libero Lauren LePere moved the O’Fallon girls’ volleyball squad into the Illinois High School Association regional finals scheduled for Thursday night in the Panther Dome.
Coach Melissa Massey’s charges made their 30th victory of the season a memorable one even though it took less than an hour to knock off the Collinsville Kahoks in the regional semi-final match. The Lady Panthers firepower proved too much for the Kahoks as OTHS prevailed 25-11 and 25-8.
It took a little while for the Panthers to warm to the task as they trailed early in game one 5-2. A kill by Elise Smith down the sideline, a block by Cassie Reno and a Collinsville hitting error evened the score at 5-5. O’Fallon took the lead for good when middle hitter Kenzee Simmers blocked a Collinsville shot at the net.
With the Panthers leading 13-10, LePere stepped to the service line and reeled off eight straight points including two aces. The scoring run ended with a Kahok kill, but by that time the game was out of reach. A touch shot by Reno and a thunderous cross court kill by Smith sealed the game one victory.
The O’Fallon girls continued their onslaught at the start of the second game. Cassie Reno scored the first OTHS point with a block. Mackenzie Koester and Imani Williamson followed with scoring blasts into the heart of the Kahok defense. With O’Fallon leading 6-4, LaPere again took over the serving duties for the Panthers and started another string of unanswered points. A pair of aces sandwiched another kill by Smith, quickly ballooning the O’Fallon lead to 12-4. The wilting OTHS attack finally broke Collinsville’s resolve as the Kahoks began to commit unforced errors which expanded the Panthers’ already healthy lead.
O’Fallon will face the winner of the Belleville East/Belleville West semi-final match, hoping to repeat their performance against the Kahoks and build on the successful ending to their 2016 regular season.
The Lady Panthers opened the stretch run of their 2016 regular season on a decidedly high note, streaking to five consecutive victories that culminated in securing their own Autumn Classic championship trophy.
The OTHS girls began the string with a 3-game battle versus the Althoff Crusaders. After dropping the first game 22-25, O’Fallon rallied behind the front-line play of Smith, Mackenzie Koester and Imani Williamson to pull out a 25-23 win in game two. The momentum stayed on the Lady Panthers’ side of the court in the deciding third game. Early kills by Smith and Koester allowed O’Fallon to build an early lead for which the Crusaders had no answer, resulting in a 25-10 OTHS win and a match victory.
The OTHS Autumn Classic was the next challenge, and the Lady Panthers responded with, arguably, their best extended effort of the 2016 campaign.
Pinckneyville and Breese Central were the first two hurdles in preliminary action, and the O’Fallon squad dispatched both without breaking a sweat. Relying on their versatile front line attack and solid defensive work spear-headed by Ali Fournie, the Panther spikers pulverized Pinckneyville 25-16 and 25-7 and rolled past Breese Central in straight games 25-13 and 25-12.
O’Fallon’s semi-final opponent, Champaign Central, proved a sterner test for Massey’s charges. The two teams locked horns in a struggle for superiority that extended into a third game before the Panthers squeezed out a match victory. The win propelled the local spikers into the title match against Chicago Marist, ranked number five in the state. Besides having the tourney championship at stake, the OTHS girls were also seeking vindication when they faced the Chicago power since Marist had out-dueled O’Fallon for the title in last year’s Autumn Classic finale.
This time the Panthers prevailed by a razor thin margin. O’Fallon was able to claim the title in straight games, but it took some doing as multiple lead changes occurred in both games with the outcome in doubt until the final point. In game one, the OTHS girls gained an early advantage but couldn’t put Marist away. Ultimately, according to Massey, it was the OTHS defensive effort that finally clinched the victory.
“Our girls really played well as a team during the tournament and especially against Marist,” Massey said. “With our defensive set up, it was critical to keep the ball in play, and our girls were exceptional in accomplishing that. Ali Fournie did a super job for us in that phase of the game.”
The combined efforts of the OTHS squad eked out a 25-23 first game victory and matched Marist point for point in game two to clinch the tourney title with a 27-25 win. O’Fallon’s Koester was named the tournament’s MVP, and teammate Smith earned a spot on the All-Tourney squad.
After the exhilarating tourney championship, the Lady Panthers ended their regular season with matches against Columbia and East St. Louis. O’Fallon split the two, losing a three-game battle to the undefeated Eagles and winning in straight games over the Flyers.
With the Autumn Classic trophy as inspiration, the OTHS girls appeared well on their way to hanging the first loss of the season on the Eagles by winning the first game of the match and blasting their way to an 11-6 lead in game two. A missed service opportunity at that point gave Columbia an opening and behind their star front line player Colene Hamilton the Eagles affected a momentum shift that fueled a furious comeback. Hamilton fired a series of winners that cut the O’Fallon lead to 14-12. Another service run by Columbia gave the Eagles the lead in game two, and they continued to dominate the match through game three to keep their undefeated record intact.
The O’Fallon girls bounced back in their final Southwestern Conference match on 2016 when they hosted East St. Louis. The Flyerettes were no match for the Lady Panthers. O’Fallon’s multi-faceted attack pounded out a straight set win 25-10 and 25-15 to give O’Fallon a 29-6 record as they entered regional tournament play on Tuesday.