Those hilly roads surrounding the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville were more than just a tourist attraction for the Althoff High volleyball team this summer.
Spurred by a bitter super-sectional loss to Shelbyville last season that left them a game short of the state tournament, they met there nearly every Saturday for a run of just under two miles. That would come at the end of a week of workouts that includes sessions with personal trainers, open gyms and weight training.
“That’s what’s pushed us to this point,” said Althoff’s Addie Burris, whose 23-11 team will take on St. Joseph-Ogden (30-3) at noon Friday in the Class 2A state tournament semifinals in Normal. “When the playoffs hit, we all realized ‘This is it.’ We knew for our seniors, this would be the last time they ever played volleyball for Althoff.
“We’ve started to play or each other and that’s really helped us. We’re all clicking at he right time and we know whoever gets the ball is going to put it away.”
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Senior libero Katie Allard agreed.
“Just having that taste in our mouth from last year, losing in the super-sectional and being so close was tough,” she said. “On our way to the super-sectional this year we said that we weren’t going to leave with another loss.”
They didn’t, rolling past Newton at the Wesclin Super-Sectional last Saturday and into their first state tournament appearance since 2007 and 10th overall.
When the playoffs hit, we all realized ‘This is it.’ We knew for our seniors, this would be the last time they ever played volleyball for Althoff.
Althoff junior Addie Burris
“It’s surreal,” Allard said. “This is what we’ve been working for these last couple years. To finally get here it’s kind of a crazy feeling that really hasn’t set in yet. I’ve never played on a team that feels so well-rounded. We all have each others’ backs.”
“We just got kicked off our own bus”
This team also has more than a few superstitions.
Throughout the playoffs, Althoff coach Sara Thomas Dietrich would drive separately to games along with her aunt, Althoff assistant coach Kathy Wuller. Dietrich did it mainly because of her young daughter, Charlotte.
When Dietrich and Wuller boarded the bus for the super-sectional trip to Wesclin, it set off an alarm to superstitious players who have been sitting in the same lucky seats and listening to the same lucky songs throughout the postseason. One of them has been bringing along a lucky blanket.
“They literally chased Kathy and I off the bus because they thought it would be bad luck,” joked Dietrich. “We were like ‘We just got kicked off our own bus.’’’
Apparently the players believe that switching from a school bus to a charter bus for the 2 1/2-hour ride to Normal means it’s OK for the top two coaches to return to their seats at the front.
They literally chased Kathy and I off the bus because they thought it would be bad luck. We were like ‘We just got kicked off our own bus.’
Althoff coach Sara Dietrich
“We’ve been alternating jersey colors, too,” Burris said. “Last year we wore blue twice in a row and that’s when we lost at the super-sectional, so this year we had to wear gold.”
Digging a path to state
Allard is the symbol of what makes this team work. Defensive players in the back row don’t receive much attention unless something goes wrong, but her coaches and teammates know they couldn’t get by without her.
Allard is on the floor every match more than anyone, diving and flying around trying to save balls while working hard to make pinpoint passes. She has a team-high 418 digs.
“You don’t always get all of the glamor, but it’s always fun to see my teammates get the big kills and the big blocks,” she said. “I still get to be a big part of it and setting it up with what I do. Everything has to start with a pass, so I’m more than happy to be back there doing that.”
Allard works in precision with junior setter Louise Comerford, a Miami (Ohio) recruit.
“Louise makes me look so good,” Allard said. “She makes all of my passes just look perfect and in setting our hitters up to get the kills that they do. We’re all working as one unit and playing as one.
“Everything’s just flowing.”
Burris likes the way Allard goes about her business.
“Katie has improved so much from last year and that really shows in our game,” Burris said. “We all have great confidence in her. Our hitters would not be as successful if it wasn’t for Katie.”
Senior outside hitter Emily Myatt wouldn’t be the first member of her family to win a state title at Althoff. Uncle Tim Myatt played on football and baseball state championship teams with the Crusaders while her father, Tom Myatt, was power-hitting first baseman who played college baseball.
“That’s the goal,” Emily Myatt said of bringing home a state title. “That would be absolutely awesome. (Going to state) is a once in a lifetime thing to get to do. Winning would be absolutely nuts.
“During the playoffs the whole time you’re thinking you don’t want it to end and you just want to keep going. What better way to go out than the state tournament? I couldn’t ask for more.”
Myatt said this team is special because of the chemistry and balance. There are contributors from freshman through senior and everyone has played a part in the success.
“There’s a lot of love on the team,” Myatt said. “All of us are really good friends and we truthfully are a family. You just laugh all the time because you’re having so much fun.”