O’Fallon was oh-so-close to victory Tuesday, but the Edwardsville Tigers refused to blink.
Junior Rachel Pranger had 19 kills and junior Kate Martin added 18, including three in a row to finish off the third game, as the Tigers nipped the Panthers 23-25, 27-25, 27-25 in the semifinals of the Class 4A Chatham Glenwood Sectional at Belleville West High.
Edwardsville (31-6) will meet Normal (32-6) for the championship at 6 p.m. Thursday at Chatham Glenwood High. Normal defeated Pekin 25-19, 25-21 in the other semifinal. The Tigers lost to the Ironmen in three games Oct. 22 at Lyons Township High.
“We know what they’ve got, they know what we’ve got,” Edwardsville coach Jami Parker said. “It’s going to be two good teams going for the sectional championship.”
O’Fallon (31-7) led 24-22 in the second game, but the Tigers scored three of four points to pull into a 25-all tie before Martin had a kill and sophomore Corrine Timmermann had a block to secure the hard-fought victory.
In the third game, the Panthers led 25-24 after a kill by senior Cassie Reno. That’s when Martin went to work. Two consecutive kills by the 6-footer put the Tigers on top 26-25. After an O’Fallon timeout, Martin closed the match with another kill.
Edwardsville’s victory avenged a season-ended loss to O’Fallon last year, and it was the Tigers’ third straight win over their Southwestern Conference rival this season.
“It’s hard to talk right now. I’m so excited,” Martin said. “It was just going through my head to win this game for my teammate and keep playing hard to get the ‘W.’ I don’t even realize (what I’m doing). I’m just playing. I’m just doing what I love. That’s about it.”
Junior Rachel Verdun had 41 assists and 11 digs for Edwardsville, while junior Megan Woll paced the Tigers with 16 digs.
Senior Imani Williamson had 15 kills to lead the Panthers, followed by senior Mackenzie Koester and junior Elise Smith with 11 and Reno with 10. Senior Alison Fournie had 50 assists.
“What are you going to do?” O’Fallon coach Melissa Massey said of the tight competition between the teams. “They both left it on the court. It was awesome. This one is going to sting for a while, I’m sure.
“They were burning us on the slide a lot. We practiced it and knew it was going to happen, but for whatever reason, we just could not get there. That kind of took us off our defense. But outside of that, I just think it was so much back and forth.”
“That was two great teams both playing at the top of their games,” she said. “There were not a lot of unforced errors on either side. Both teams were digging, both teams were swinging hard, blocking big. It was a match.”
Tough and tight
The biggest lead either team enjoyed came in the second game when a mishit by Smith provided Edwardsville with a 12-7 lead.
In the first game, no more than three points separated the teams and the game was deadlocked 11 times. O’Fallon finally won on a kill by Smith.
In the third game, the largest disparity was three points and there were 15 ties.
“One of this team’s strengths has always been their consistency, their ability to stay level,” Parker said. “Pressure doesn’t seem to bother this group. So I think that really helped us coming down the stretch. They held their heads. They were beautiful.”
The narrow outscore was exactly what Martin anticipated.
“I didn’t expect anything else,” she said, complimenting the Tigers’ mettle when O’Fallon was within a whisker of victory. “That’s why I love this team. We just fight and fight and fight. We don’t give up. We wanted to win so bad for each other.”
Martin said the Tigers’ memories of their season-ending loss to O’Fallon in 2015 were still vivid.
“We knew we weren’t going to let that happen this year,” she said. “We just had to do whatever we needed to get this win. It’s extra-special this year.”
Pranger said the Tigers must be sharper to win the rematch against Normal.
“We just have to work harder and play better as a team,” she said. “We can do it.”
The Panthers certainly did their part to keep Edwardsville on its game.
“They were hitting hard tonight,” Parker said. “They blocked well, they dug well. They have such a well-rounded attack. They have a full arsenal of hitters. That was quite a challenge for us to block and defend that many good hitters.”