O’Fallon Panthers is not one of the brand names of the southwestern Illinois volleyball tradition.
But after dispatching the more reputable likes of Mater Dei, Belleville West and Edwardsville, the Panthers earned their right to represent the region for another deep run in the IHSA Class 4A state playoffs.
That run ended with a 25-13, 25-23 loss to Normal in the championship game of the Springfield 4A Sectional Thursday night.
It was an outstanding season for O’Fallon which, with a blend of senior leadership and underclass talent, won 32 matches and spent the better part of two months at the top of the Belleville News-Democrat large school poll.
The loss brings an end to the careers of seniors Becca Althoff, Renae Moeller and Anna Strake.
“We definitely have a lot of young talent and our seniors are the most amazing kids ever,” said O’Fallon coach Melissa Massey. “You know this day has got to come at some point. We’re disappointed now, but I’ll never forget this group.”
Normal (29-9) advances to the Normal-West Super-Sectional against Lincoln-Way North Saturday. O’Fallon’s season ends at 32-6.
The one thing our team is most proud of is that we don’t let things get into our head, but it happened to us tonight.
Anna Strake, O’Fallon senior
The teams battled early with 13 combined kills accounting for the first 21 points of the first set.
But after a kill by Elise Smith put O’Fallon ahead 11-10, Normal rallied 12-1 to take command. Annie Trimpe alone served a 10-point run that included three aces.
Normal served 10 aces on the night, which prevented O’Fallon from establishing its offense.
“That was one of our worst games for serve receive,” Massey said. “When you struggle like that, it just takes you out of a game ... If we’re talking about not getting a third option pass because of serve receive or a passing error, it’s hard to string something strong together.”
The Panthers scored just once more before Normal cinched it with an O’Fallon service error, a serve-receive error, and a kill by senior outside hitter Micki Quakenbush.
Strake said the pressure of sectional play got into the Panthers’ heads during the Normal rally.
“The nerves got to us, for sure,” she said. “The one thing our team is most proud of is that we don’t let things get into our head, but it happened to us tonight.”
The Panthers remained resilient, though, and battled back from deficits of three points or more four times in the second set. O’Fallon, in fact, held a 22-21 lead after a 6-2 run highlighted by three kills from junior Cassie Reno.
Normal regained control, however, on two more missed O’Fallon serves and another serve-receive error.
You know this day has got to come at some point. We’re disappointed now, but I’ll never forget this group.
Melissa Massey, O’Fallon head coach
O’Fallon’s serve-receive troubles played to Normal’s strategy of keeping Strake out of the offense, said coach Christine Konopasek.
“We talked about making it so that O’Fallon didn’t have a chance to run their middles,” Konopasek said. “Everybody I talked to had nothing but good things to say about Strake. They told us we had to take her out of the offense. We served super aggressively, and when they had to use extra hits to handle serves, it made it easier for us to be successful.”
Reno finished with a match-high seven kills, while Smith and Strake each had five. Moeller contributed seven digs and Alison Fournie had 22 assists.
For Normal, Quakenbush had six kills, and Ginny Gerig and MaKenna Banhart each had six digs.