Belleville West senior Sam Schell
Just when it seemed the Edwardsville Tigers were headed for the perfect ending on Senior Night, the Belleville West Maroons crashed the party.
The teams split the first two sets in an emotional display Tuesday, then Belleville West watched a 24-21 lead evaporate in the third set before recovering to win 27-25 and force a three-way tie atop the Southwestern Conference volleyball standings.
Edwardsville won the first set 25-19 and Belleville West won the second 25-14 as two of the area’s top teams were forced to slug it out through a third set that had a definite playoff feel.
Top-ranked Belleville West (31-3) improved to 5-1 in the conference with one conference match remaining Thursday against Alton. Fourth-ranked Edwardsville (21-8) suffered its first league loss and is 6-1 in conference play along with second-ranked O’Fallon.
“As the last few games of the season approach we all just really want to go out with a bang,” said West senior setter Sam Schell, who had 17 assists. “Everyone’s all in it to win. This was just a great team effort. Were all trying to make the best of the rest of the season.
“Edwardsville’s always a really good team, but it was just awesome because it’s on their Senior Night and it’s for a big conference win.”
West senior Kayla Juenger pounded out 12 kills and Nicole Braner had seven with Nikki Gaskill contributing five. Ali Hanger had 12 digs for the Maroons and Kaylee Hanger added 11 along with three aces.
A Sara Caponi kill gave the Maroons a 24-21 lead in the third set. Then consecutive West errors, an ace by Sydney Wright and a big block by Annie Ellis and Kate Martin put Edwardsville on top 25-24 with the large crowd was screaming on every point.
“There was a lot of energy in the building tonight,” Edwardsville coach Jami Parker said. “There was a lot of pressure tonight. It;s a big Senior Night, it was for a conference title, the stands were packed, the fans were loud on both sides. It definitely had a postseason feel to it.”
West senior Nicole Braner helped regain momentum with a kill and a block to give her team a 26-25 lead before Edwardsville sophomore Rachel Pranger came up short on a shot that landed in the net as the Maroons began celebrating.
“I really thought all three sets were going to be like that last one,” West coach Lauren DeGirolamo said. “The first one they came out strong and kind of made a lot of mistakes. Then that second one we came out strong and they were the ones making mistakes. The third set, that’s how I expected all three games to go, just kind of a back and forth battle, one-or two-point lead here or there.
“In the end we made it way more difficult on ourselves than we needed to. The girls could have let down ... they just kept pushing and that’s an awesome win for us.”
TIGERS FALL JUST SHORT
Pranger topped Edwardsville with 12 kills while Ellis added 11 kills and three blocks.
“West is a great team,” said Parker, whose team was coming off an emotional road win over Mater Dei on Monday. “We made a lot of unforced errors through the match, serving and hitting errors, serve-receive errors. We were a tick off and this is a great team, you can’t be a little bit off, honestly, playing a big match like this.
“We did a lot of shot-taking as opposed to swinging and that was one of the things we talked about in the huddle after the game. We’re going into postseason, you’ve got to swing big here in these big matches.”
A late four-point service run by Edwardsville’s Megan Woll helped turn momentum in the first set. Strong serving by Kaylee Hanger and Ali Hanger ignited the Maroons in the second set, with Kaylee Hanger turning in three straight aces to help West build a 20-12 lead.
West could build no larger than several three-point leads during an incredibly close third set that was tied 13 times, including 25-25.
“Kayla was a big-time person there in the middle for us, but then we also got some big things out of Nicole Braner,” DeGirolamo said. “She got a kill and then she had that big block on the side ... our defense ... it was just a whole big team effort tonight.”