ST. CHARLES – St. Charles East’s Caitlyn Ballard considered the Saints an underdog going into Tuesday’s crosstown clash with St. Charles North.
It was a curious assessment given the Saints’ usual dominance in the girls volleyball rivalry.
But North started the season on strong footing while East dropped its first four matches until steadying itself the past couple weeks.
After Tuesday’s 25-21, 25-12 victory, the host Saints showed they’re not especially suited for underdog status.
“We started off [the season] really tense,” Ballard said. “We weren’t being ourselves. We weren’t playing the game because we wanted to. Coach [Jennie Kull] wanted us to find fun in the game again. She was like ‘You guys play this because it’s fun, and right now you guys are playing scared.’
“Once we put all that aside and played for the team and played for fun, it all came together, and that really showed tonight.”
Kull said it took a while to find a tone that resonated with this year’s squad. Eight seniors graduated from last year’s third-place Class 4A powerhouse.
“I changed, too, and I think that’s really important,” Kull said. “I learned, I ask a lot of them. ... Every team’s different. You have to learn to change and go with what you have.”
On Volley for the Cure Night – a breast cancer-fighting fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen Foundation – the host Saints wore black jerseys with pink numbers while the North Stars donned bright pink jerseys.
The first game was close throughout. North (9-3, 1-1 Upstate Eight Conference River) came within 22-20 but the Saints (10-7, 2-0) won the next two points, including a service ace from senior Erienne Barry, and closed the match on Nicole Woods’ kill.
East was even crisper in Game 2 while the North Stars regressed.
Interim North coach Doug Foster – filling in for Lindsey Hawkins, who watched from the stands while on maternity leave – watched a North team fall short of the level of play it has exhibited most of the season.
He hopes it was a one-night blip, albeit a potentially costly one in the compact UEC River race.
“We’ve got too much character, we’ve got too much pride, we’ve got too much skill, experience, to not have them rise up again,” Foster said.
Freshman right-side hitter Claire Anderson was a bright spot for the North Stars, notching two key kills to keep North in the hunt late in Game 1.
“She’s really impressive,” Foster said. “She’s a big-game player. She came out as a freshman, and brought it.”
East, meanwhile, had “a little bit of everything” working, according to Ballard.
Ballard (nine kills), Woods (eight kills), Barry (21 assists) and sophomore middle hitter Mikaela Mosquera (four kills, three blocks) were among East’s statistical leaders, and the Saints’ defense – up front to the back row – kept the North Stars from sustaining momentum.
“Just watching the setter, being disciplined on defense and everything,” Mosquera said. “Our whole team was disciplined on defense, so that was great.”
Underdogs or not, on Tuesday, East owned the crosstown series. Kull was uncertain how many wins in a row it has been for the Saints against the North Stars, but said the figure might be close to 10.
“It really doesn’t matter,” Kull said. “What matters is the next one. Like right now, I’m celebrating today, but tomorrow we’ve got to get back to work.”