Behind a balanced attack and a near-flawless defensive effort, Althoff used a fast start to get the upper hand then held off Mount Zion 25-10, 25-21 on Friday in the Class 3A Salem Super-Sectional.
With sophomore middle blocker Karinna Gall setting an early pace with two kills and three teammates also scoring, the Crusaders jumped out to a 7-1 lead in game and were never threatened.
Mount Zion (35-5), which defeated Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin to win the first sectional in school history, gave the Crusaders a battle in the second game, but when Gall added her 10th and final kill, Althoff was headed back to Redbird Arena in Normal for a second straight season.
This time, it will be as a Class 3A school.
“It feels unbelievable. Getting there a year ago was a great accomplishment and now to get back there again. It’s amazing,” Crusaders senior setter Louise Comerford said. “We knew coming into this year that being in Class 3A, the competition would be more difficult. But we did as a team. I’m so happy and proud to be part of this volleyball program.”
Comerford and the Crusaders will play two more matches and have a chance to make history as the first Althoff volleyball state champions. The Crusaders (39-1) will take on Normal U. High at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal.
Normal U. High defeated Tinley Park 25-16, 25-19 to win the Tinley Park Super-Sectional. Althoff placed third at the Class 2A state tournament last year.
Against Mount Zion, Gall led the balanced Allthoff attack with her 10 kills while sophomore outside hitter Katie Wemhoener chipped in with seven kills. Comerford was the offensive catalyst with 36 assists.
But as Althoff coach Sara Thomas-Dietrich said, it was and always has been a team effort.
“I’ll say it now, the goal is to win the state championship,” Thomas-Dietrich said. “But to have a chance next Saturday we have to win that first one on Friday. But to get back to the state tournament for a second straight year is just amazing. I couldn’t be any more proud of the girls. We are playing our best volleyball of the season right now.”
Althoff was certainly at its best on Friday.
With Mary Wessel serving, Gall had her two kills, but Addie Burris Grace Strieker, Leighten Kaiser and Comerford all scored in the first nine points of the game as Althoff took an early lead. The defense was also flawless as time after time, the Crusaders returned Mount Zion’s powerful kill attempts.
“Defense is something we stress and have really worked on recently. Defense wins championships,” Thomas-Dietrich said. “I also thought our quick start tonight gave us a lift, especially after the other night when we lost the first game against Mater Dei.
“You have to be ready from the get-go and tonight we were. Lesson learned.”
The Crusaders continued to extend their lead in the opening game and when Comerford and Gall combined on a block, Althoff had a 25-10 win.
It was more of the same early in the second game. Wemhoener found the range twice and Claire Franke served an ace as the Crusaders took a 9-4 lead. Cheered on by a large group of fans from Belleville, the Crusaders also got a lift when the entire Althoff football team walked into the gym midway through the second game.
Althoff will play at Rochester in a second-round Class 4A playoff game Saturday.
Mount Zion, led by junior outside hitter Kaitlyn Lillpop, fought back and cut the Crusaders lead to three points late in the second game. But with Wemhoener leading the way with four kills, Althoff held off the charge.
“Getting to the state tournament last year made us realize that if we worked hard enough that we could get back again this year,” Wemhoener said. “We knew being in Class 3A that it would be more difficult. We’re excited to be going back. We want to be the first volleyball team from Althoff to win the state title.”
Dean Criddle: @CriddleDean