By: Luke Drase
The third place match of the state finals is one of the hardest to mentally prepare for.
With a chance at a state championship gone, it almost seems like a cruel punishment to make teams that already lost the night before to come back and play one more time.
Despite the difficult situation, both St. Viator and University High School (Normal) put on a hard fought match which saw U-High prevail, 25-21, 19-25, 25-19.
“It really means a lot to us,” said U-High head coach Mike Bolhuis. “We look up at that banner in our gym pretty regularly and it hasn’t had anything since 2000. Getting to state is a big accomplishment and we’re very, very proud of that.”
Under the circumstances, it was understandable that both U-High and St. Viator started out the match lacking energy.
The teams traded points early and often, with neither being able to take more than a one point lead until a kill by Addy Loeffler gave U-High a 19-17 advantage.
U-High built on their slim lead late in the set and ended up cruising the rest of the way to take a 25-21 win.
Early in set two, St. Viator found their rhythm for the first time since the opening set in the semifinals.
Libero Carrie Leazer went on an incredible seven point serving run, giving Viator a 12-5 lead and forced U-High to use both of their timeouts.
U-High would try to creep back into the set, but the St. Viator lead never dwindled lower than four points, as the Lions took set two 25-19.
Continuing to build on the momentum gained from set two, St. Viator jumped out to a 11-6 lead in the deciding frame courtesy of three kills by Kate Nottoli and two from Catherine Hickey.
Down but not out, U-High would tie the game up at 11 off of an Amber Juarez serving run, while also managing to bottle up Hickey, who only had 15 kills on 61 attacks.
“She was hitting a lot of sharp crosses,” said Juarez on Hickey. “She got us on those early but switched it up a bit down the line. I think our block really started getting up there and it really helped us out on defense.”
After exchanging points for much of the middle portion of the set, St. Viator held a slim, 17-16 lead setting up for what was supposed to be a thrilling finish, but U-High had other plans.
U-High engineered a 8-0 run, aided by five St. Viator attacking errors giving the Pioneers match point at 24-17.
St. Viator would make one last gasp, but a Illyana Lin kill gave U-High the 25-19 win to clinch third place in class 3A, their highest finish since they won the state tournament in 2000.
Even though St. Viator went 0-2 on the weekend, their fourth place finish was still better than any other team in school history.
Senior setter Michela Muller said: “I don’t even feel like it’s real, it hasn’t even settled in. I feel like we’re still going to practice on Monday. It’s awesome that we got to represent our school and out town.”
“This has been unbelievable, we always talk about this as being the season goal,” said St. Viator head coach Charlie Curtin. “This year the girls came together and worked hard all year. I’m so proud of them and it’s definitely going to put us on the map for volleyball.”