Facing an opponent in Normal University High School that was playing just three miles from its campus, the Althoff Crusaders weren’t fazed Friday in the semifinals of the Class 3A state volleyball tournament at Redbird Arena.
The Crusaders moved into the state-championship match with a 25-13, 25-21 win over the Pioneers.
Third in the Class 2A state finals a year ago, the Crusaders (40-1) gave a businesslike performance. With sophomore Karinna Gall recording seven kills, Althoff was in control as it moved a win away from its first state volleyball championship.
“It’s a great feeling. We’re continuing to play our best volleyball. I thought we came out and played very well,” Althoff coach Sara Thomas-Dietrich said. “After what happened last year and the disappointment, the girls remember what that felt like. It was one of our goals not to let it happen or have that feeling again.
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“Our defense was sharp, and our attacking was very good. We had a game plan, and I thought the girls did a great job of executing that game plan.”
In their 11th trip to the state tournament, the Crusaders moved into the title match for the second time in school history and the first since placing second in Class AA in 1999.
Althoff will take on Resurrection (34-8) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. The Bandits rallied for a 30-32, 25-23, 25-18 win over St. Viator in the first semifinal match. St. Viator will take on University in the third-place match at 4 p.m.
Senior Addie Burris added six kills and senior Louise Comerford and sophomore Grace Strieker pitched in with five kills each for Althoff. Comerford added 18 assists for an Althoff team that had six players finish with three or more kills.
“We came out and played well early, and it just carried on through the match,” Comerford said. “I think the fact that we played so well in the first game helped us on game two because we knew we could count on every player to come through.”
Making its first state tournament appearance since winning back-to-back Class A championships in 1999 and 2000, University was its own worst enemy in the opening game. The Pioneers were guilty of seven hitting errors.
“I wish we would have started with game two. That was the team that has played so well down the stretch and in the postseason to get us here,” Pioneers coach Mike Bolhuis said. “Althoff is a great team with a lot of weapons. But we were extremely nervous in game one.”
With Comerford serving three winners and Mary Wessel adding a four-point run that included a pair of aces, Althoff continued to pile it on in the opening game. When sophomore Katie Wemhoener scored off an assist from Comerford, Althoff was one game away from the state title match.
And the Pioneers fans were silent.
“They had a lot of people here. But this team has never let an opposing crowd get in their heads,” Thomas said. “In fact, they seem to thrive on it. The more the merrier.”
A kill by senior Isabel Schaefbauer gave the Pioneers their only lead of the match at 3-2, but a pair of kills by Gall and a third from Comerford gave Althoff the lead for good. Strieker, who finished with five kills, and Leighten Kaiser, who added three, also had big nights for Althoff.
“It’s just the way it goes some nights,” Strieker said, smiling. “They made a run at us, but we were able to maintain our focus. We’ve done a good job of that all year.”
The Pioneers cut the lead to 23-21 late in game two, but a hitting error and kill by Burris clinched the win for Althoff.
Welcome home celebration
The Crusaders will be honored in a welcome home celebration at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Althoff Principal Dave Harris said the Crusaders will receive the traditional fire truck ride, which will begin at the high school at 1 p.m. and will continue down Main Street, around the fountain and back to the high school.
A reception will follow in the Althoff gymnasium.