When the final point was scored in a 25-10, 25-21 victory over Mount Zion at the Class 3A Salem Volleyball Sectional last Friday, the Althoff Crusaders cinched a repeat trip to the IHSA State Volleyball Tournament.
Third in the Class 2A state tournament a year ago, the Crusaders have rolled through their first postseason in class 3A. Pushed just once to three games — against Mater Dei — in five postseason matches, the Crusaders will take a 39-1 record into the state tournament semi-finals at Redbird Arena in Normal.
It’s not the first time Althoff will be taking home a trophy from state in consecutive seasons.
With current assistant coach Kathy Wuller in the midst of a successful 12-year run as head coach, Althoff placed fourth in the Class AA State Tournament in 2003 and third in Class A in 2004.
That 2003 team was anchored All-American Sara Thomas-Dietrich (nee Thomas), the Crusaders’ current head coach. She was one of several members of a deep and powerful team that went on to play in the NCAA Division I ranks.
“The 2003 team was loaded,” Wuller said. “We had Sara (Thomas) who went to Missouri State, Amy (Sauerwein) who went to Western Illinois and Katie Peil who went to Arkansas State. Erin (Albers) was on that team and played college volleyball as were the Boron’s Kim and Kristina. And we had Jessica (Dalke) who played at Ole Miss (Mississippi) for a year before transferring.”
Eight members returned in 2004 and were starters on the team that went on to place third in the Class A State Tournament. Aside from the 1999 team, which lost to Downers Grove South in the title game, no Althoff team since has played for a state championship.
This weekend at Redbird Arena in Normal, the 2017 Crusaders hope to add that one piece of volleyball hardware that’s missing from its trophy case.
With a mid-season loss to city rival Belleville West as the only blemish on an otherwise perfect year, the Crusaders (39-1) will take on Normal University High School (28-10) at 5:30 p.m. Friday in a Class 3A State Tournament semifinal at Redbird Arena in Normal.
A win would send the Crusaders into the state championship at 5:30 p.m. Saturday against either (Arlington Heights) St. Viator or Chicago Resurrection.
“I don’t want to jinx it. We’ve taken it one match at a time all year and that’s the way we’re still looking at it,” said Thomas-Dietrich. “It will be difficult. We just need to play our game.
“I think getting to the state tournament a year ago is huge for us this year. Last year they walked into Redbird Arena and were just in awe. From the size of the locker rooms to the way the ball sounded when it hit the floor, it was just different. This year, they are so excited about being there but they are also very calm. They know what to expect this time and I think that’s ahuge advantage for us.”
Building the tradition
As a sophomore in 1980, Kathy Crotty (Wuller) was a member of the first Crusaders team to qualify for the state tournament. Competing as a Class AA school in the IHSA’s two class system, the Crusaders lost to Orland Park Sandburg in the state quarterfinals, which were then in Springfield.
Another quarterfinal loss to Sandburg, this time in three games, followed in 1981. But in 1982, Althoff earned its first state tournament trophy, beating Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in the quarterfinals before placing fourth under coach John Rule.
“I graduated in 1983 and we made it to state my last three years. Actually, my sophomore year I came down with mononucleosis and had to sit on the bench, but my junior and senior years, I got the chance to participate,” Wuller said. “Back when I played and coached, there were just two classes — Class A and Class AA — and it was very difficult to even get to state because it seemed like the Chicago teams just dominated.
“Back then when a Southern Illinois team got to state it was something. To place fourth as a senior was just an amazing experience.”
After attending Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State), Wuller returned to Althoff in 1991 and took over the head coaching duties in 1996.
It would mean everything to win the state championship ... I think it would so great to be able to be here and be part of it with Sara.
Wuller turned the Althoff program into one of the best in the state during the next 12 years. She led Althoff to a mark of 361-97 in a stretch that included six trips to the state tournament. Althoff won five trophies during that time, culminating with its second place finish at the 1999 Class AA finals.
Althoff placed third in 2001 before earning three trophies in a five-year stretch from 2003-2007.
“As a player its a great experience. As a coach it’s much more nerve-wracking,” Wuller said, laughing. “Sara and I have been talking about this. As a player you just got out there and play and once the match gets underway, the nerves just go away. As a coach, its like ‘ok,what do we do?’ Sometimes though, it’s just out of your hands.”
Thomas-Dietrich and Wuller have bonded through more than just volleyball. They’re blood — Wuller is the current coach’s aunt.
“It would mean everything”
Thomas-Dietrich was three-sport standout who placed second at in class AA in the high jump in 2002 and was a member of the 2003 Althoff basketball team that placed fourth at state. That team also featured Stephanie Lisch and was coached by Don Haida.
It was on the volleyball court where Thomas was at her best. A two-time News-Democrat Player of the Year, Thomas was one of the top players in the nation as a senior in 2004. She went on to her aunt’s alma mater, Missouri State.
“What do I remember about the 2004 volleyball season? I remember us winning the Effingham Tournament, I believe for the first time, and I remember losing to Incarnate Word at the (Belleville) East Tournament. I’m still mad about that one,” Thomas-Dietrich said. “And I remember winning the play-in game at state then losing the next two.
“And, of course, I remember the relationships with my teammates. Some of them are among my best friends yet today. Just the relationships you build through sports are everlasting.”
I think getting to the state tournament a year ago is huge for us this year. Last year they walked into Redbird Arena and were just in awe ... They know what to expect this time and I think that’s a huge advantage for us.
After graduating from Missouri State, Thomas became an assistant under Lisa Orlet at Althoff for two years. When Orlet left in 2010 to be an assistant coach at Washington University in St. Louis, Thomas got her dream job.
“I always thought how great it would be if when Kathy stepped down that I would be able to take her place as the head coach here at Althoff,” Thomas-Dietrich said. “I was just fortunate to be here when Lisa (Orlet) was here and was left to be an assistant at Wash U.”
Thomas-Dietrich and Wuller, two of the driving forces in the history of the Althoff volleyball program, would like to make the dream of a state championship come true in 2017.
“It would mean everything to win the state championship,” Wuller said. “Ever since we were in that championship mode — even when I was a player — it’s what I’ve wanted. Coming so close in 1999 when we placed second and the success that we’ve had here in recent years ... it’s why I’ve stayed around so long.
“I also want to win it for her,” Wuller added, nodding toward her niece. “I think it would so great to be able to be here and be part of it with Sara.”
At a Glance
These are the teams competing at the IHSA Class 3A State Volleyball Tournament Friday and Saturday at Redbird Arena, Normal:
St. Viator Lions (Arlington Heights)
- Record: 29-11
- Coach: Charlie Curtin (11th season, 224-186-1)
- Top Players: Outside hitter Catherine Hickey (533 kills. 271 digs); setter Michaela Mueller (1,031 assists, 256 digs); libero Carrie Leazer (601 digs); middle hitter Kate Nottoli (199 kills, 84 blocks)
- Tournament history: This is the first state tournament appearance for St. Viator
Chicago Resurrection Bandits
- Record: 33-8
- Coach: Mike Sopocy (1st season, 33-8)
- Top Players: outside hitter Brittany Welch (302 kills, 205 digs); setter Christina Galla (103 aces, 653 assists, 143 digs); outside hitter Caitlin Coughlin (162 kills, 39 blocks); libero Natalie McDermott (42 aces, 284 digs)
- Tournament history: The is the first state tournament appearance for Chicago Ressurection.
Belleville Althoff Crusaders
- Record: 39-1
- Coach: Sara Thomas-Dietrich (7th season, 143-99-1)
- Top Players: Setter Louise Comerford (124 kills, 43 aces, 791 assists, 182 digs); Outside hitter Katie Wemhoener (214 kills, 36 aces, 360 digs); Middle hitter Karinna Gall (293 kills, 77 blocks, 112 digs), Rightside hitter Addie Burris (221 kills, 120 digs); libero Annika Beal (52 aces, 448 digs)
- Tournament history: This is the 11th state tournament appearance for Althoff
Normal University Pioneers
- Record: 28-10
- Coach: Mike Bolhuis (5th season, 118-40)
- Top players: setter Alexis Engst (34 aces, 370 assists, 84 digs); defensive specialist Amber Juarez (45 aces, 278 digs); Outside hitter Jessica McDowell ( 168 kills, 251 digs); setter Isabel Schaefbauer (132 kills, 417 assists, 148 digs)
- Tournament history: This is the ninth state tournament appearance for Normal University