Playing the underdog role has suited the O’Fallon Panthers quite nicely during the 2015 boys volleyball season.
After graduating several seniors from a team which won 29 matches a year ago, there weren’t many people outside the city limits of O’Fallon who gave the Panthers much of a chance to compete against powerful Edwardsville, let alone beat the perennial Southwestern Conference power in the sectional semifinal last week.
And even fewer people gave O’Fallon a shot against Joliet West in the sectional final on Tuesday, either. But two three-set marathon match wins later and it’s the Panthers who are still standing.
Now 24-9-6 following an 18-25, 25-22, 25-23 win over Joliet West, the Panthers will make their state volleyball tournament debut on Friday at 2 p.m. against the Vernon Hills Cougars (30-9) in the second of four state quarterfinals at Hoffman Estates High School.
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And they’ll do it as underdogs.
“What’s my feeling going into Friday? I have a lot of confidence in my team and right now this team feels it can compete with anybody in the state,’’ O’Fallon coach Katelyn Hagarty said. “We’re also going up to the state tournament with absolutely no pressure on us. Nobody in Chicago thinks we play good volleyball in the southern part of the state. Let them think it. It’s fine.
“But I know this about my team. It will go out and play hard until the last point of the game and every player will give everything they have. That’s all I can ask. Let people think what they want. We’re ready and we’re going to have fun. I think we’ll play very well.’’
The Panthers are just the third team from Southern Illinois to qualify for the state finals. Edwardsville qualified in 2011, losing to Vernon Hills. The Tigers also advanced last season, dropping a quarterfinal against Lincoln-Way East.
Edwardsville was a heavy favorite to make a return trip this year, especially after beating O’Fallon three times during the regular season. O’Fallon won just one game in those three matches.
“Edwardsville was the measuring stick for us and when they beat us 25-8, 25-20 early in the season, our players were really down about it,’’ Hagarty said. “We just adopted the idea that each time we played them during the regular season that we wanted to be more competitive. The second time we took them to three games and the third time, even though we lost in two, I felt we played them really tough.
“I remember telling the team after the first match that it didn’t matter what we did against them during the regular season. I wanted us to be ready when the playoffs came around. And when we played them the other night we were.’’
Several players, led by senior Alex Belongy, have enjoyed good seasons for O’Fallon.
The Panthers captain, Belongy leads the team in kills (223) and digs (372). Sophomore Luke Meidel (208 kills) and senior Parker Roustio (163) have also been solid hitters on the outside and in the middle.
Junior Lucas Hackmann has done the job as a setter and right side hitter for O’Fallon. Hackmann has 486 assists to go along with 226 assists and 110 kills. But the leader of the team has been Belongy.
“There isn’t any question that he’s the player his teammates look to on the court. That’s why he’s our captain,’’ Hagarty said of Belongy. “He’s our leader and it’s a role that he enjoys and takes great pride in.
“Our seniors have stepped up. They are done with high school, but it’s like they have had some unfinished the business on the volleyball court A player like Parker (Roustio) has really stepped and played well here late in the season. But it’s been a team effort. They set a goal to get to the state tournament and now that we’re here we want to make history by becoming the first team from Southern Illinois to earn a trophy.
Vernon Hills has won a trophy at the state finals, placing third in 2011. The Cougars are making their third state tournament appearance overall. A member of the North Suburban Conference, Vernon Hills defeated Barrington 25-23, 25-21 to win the Antioch Sectional on Tuesday.
Hagarty said her knowledge of Vernon Hills is limited.
“I really don’t know much about them except that upset Barrington in the sectional and Barrington was supposed to be very strong,’’ Hagarty said. “They’ve got good size up front, but they’re not that much taller than we are.’’
Dylan DeBoer, a 6-3 outside hitter, leads the Cougars in kills with 269 while 6-6 senior Lem Turner has 219 kills to his credit. Junior Jake Barnett is the Cougars most versatile player with 200 kills, 416 assists and 157 digs.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at email@example.com or 618-239-2661.