PALOS HEIGHTS – Playing a true road game on Chicago Christian's home floor, the St. Francis girls volleyball team knew it would have to weather a spirited performance from the underdog Knights in Saturday's IHSA Class 3A Chicago Christian Supersectional.
"We just had to be steady – hold on until the emotion goes down a little bit," Spartans coach Peg Kopec said.
That took a bit longer than expected, but St. Francis asserted itself in time to defeat the Knights, 25-22, 25-15, and earn a berth in the state semifinals on Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal. St. Francis will face Champaign Centennial in the day's first semifinal.
The Spartans and Knights – Suburban Christian Conference rivals – played twice during the regular season, with St. Francis sweeping both matches, and the Knights scoring no more than 20 points in any of the games.
But the Knights (24-16) had the Spartans' full attention in the late stages of Game 1, when Chicago Christian erased an 18-12 deficit to tie the game at 22-all.
The Spartans (35-5), though, received kills from juniors Maddie Haggerty and Kristin Acciavatti as part of three straight points to turn back the uprising.
"We let ourselves down a little bit – we wanted to come out stronger, but we pulled through," St. Francis junior libero Sam Dubiel said. "We knew we had to do it."
Chicago Christian coach James Garcia, whose program was moved up to Class 3A this year after making it downstate in 2A five of the last six years, realized it was critical that the Knights take advantage of their chance late in Game 1.
"I thought they did a great job in the first game," Garcia said. "It was right there for the taking. The second game, with the same lineup, right before the game started, they were gassed. They used up a lot of energy, but they were willing to go out there and fight for it. It just didn't work out."
The Spartans' superior depth was enhanced by the availability of senior Michelle McLaughlin, whose return from an unspecified, two-game absence was met by roars of approval from the St. Francis student section.
Haggerty had 11 kills for St. Francis, while senior setter McKenna Kelsay notched 20 assists. Junior Natalie Murison and Dubiel recorded five digs apiece.
The Spartans didn't have much time to refocus after a wild sectional championship win Thursday night against rival Joliet Catholic. The Spartans survived that one by taking Game 3, 30-28.
"Ms. Kopec's really good about getting us calmed down," Spartans senior defensive specialist Lexi Riccolo said. "There's a time to celebrate, there's a time to do business. In practice, we did our work, we got down to business, and we did what we needed to do."
The Spartans are making their second straight trip to Normal after taking third place in 3A a year ago. Kopec, the winningest volleyball coach in IHSA history, has been a Redbird Arena regular during her career, but said the novelty remains intact for the girls.
"I have," Kopec said. "They haven't."