After losing 25-23 in the first set to Mater Dei and trailing 16-9 in the second Thursday, the Belleville West Maroons were close to being run out of their own gym.
They quickly found an answer in the form of an eight-point service run by Kacie Kinnikin as the unbeaten Maroons won the second set 25-23, then staged an inspiring 30-28 victory to clinch the match and hand Mater Dei its third straight defeat.
Looming large in the win were 18 kills by West senior Kayla Juenger, whose powerful right arm kept dropping bombs on the top-ranked Knights (12-3). Ten of those kills came in the decisive third set, the final one helping third-ranked West (9-0) tie it at 27-27.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
A kill by West senior Nicole Braner pushed Mater Dei to the brink at 29-28 and a kill attempt by Mater Dei’s Erica Lampe sailed out by inches on match point as the Maroons began the celebration.
“Being one of the six seniors we have on our team we wanted this very badly,” West defensive specialist Ali Hanger, who had a team-high 20 digs while her sister, Kaylee Hanger, added 19. “Emotions ran very high. We were getting pumped up all day and this was a win that we really wanted.”
Braner added 10 kills for the Maroons and Kaylee Hanger had seven, with setters Sam Schell and Kinnikin combining for 37 assists.
West coach Lauren DeGirolamo once starred as a player at LSU, but she seemed far more nervous while pacing the sidelines than if she had been on the court.
“It’s so nerve-wracking, right? But exciting,” she said. “Those tight games are probably more nerve-wracking for the coach than they are for the players. You have to credit our girls, they took those pressure situations and they handled them really well. They never gave up.
“They kept fighting back, which is something a coach loves to see.”
This was a volleyball feud that could repeat itself in the Class 4A playoffs. Neither team gave an inch all night, with Mater Dei overcoming a 22-21 deficit in Game 1 and relying on two late kills from senior star Kelly Voss to close out a 25-23 victory.
Voss led the Knights with 13 kills and her calm and effective play helped win points and fight off West runs all night. Kat Maue had seven kills for Mater Dei.
But the match turned around when Kinnikin had two aces during her eight-point service run, highlighted by three kills by the excitable Braner.
“I had used both of my timeouts and I was a little bit nervous there, but the girls never gave up,” DeGirolamo said. “We were able to go on a little run with Kacie Kinnikin serves and I think that gave them some confidence. It could have been really easy to just give up because Mater Dei was rolling on all cylinders, but they didn’t.”
Mater Dei coach Chad Rakers had a long talk with the Knights after the match.
“I’m still trying to figure out that run myself,” he said. “Kudos to (Kinnikin) and to their squad for pushing it to three games. We’ve got to have a better killer instinct. We’ve got to do a better job on all aspects of the game.
“Right now we’re not doing some of the things we normally do well. We’ve got to take a step back and dig back into the basics.”
RARE LOSING STREAK
Before Tuesday, Mater Dei hadn’t lost two games in a row in more than five seasons. A three-game losing streak is more rare for the Knights than every convenient mart in Clinton County being out of Ski, the beloved citrus soda of choice in that region, at the same time.
Those three losses came against three extremely strong teams: Eureka (Mo.), O’Fallon and now unbeaten West. The West match was so close the third set was tied at 20, 21, 23, 25, 26, 27 and 28 before the Maroons put it away.
What’s missing for the Knights?
“Confidence. Plain and simple,” Rakers said. “Here’s the real deal. The losses are mine and the wins are theirs. I’m not doing my job right now and I’ve got to clean up my act.”
Juenger, a 6-foot-1 senior, had four kills in the first set, closed out the second set with a monster kill and then piled up 10 more kills in the third. When it was hammer time, Juenger did not miss.
“Kayla was on fire today,” DeGirolamo said. “Kayla has been on fire for us this whole season, she’s been out go-to (player) and she really came through today when we needed her.”