NORMAL – The postgame news conference was just the tension-reliever the St. Francis girls volleyball team needed.
“None of you had any doubts, did you?” Spartans coach Peg Kopec said in her opening statement before proceeding to rag on the odor of the Spartans’ kneepads, among several jovial asides.
As Kopec well knew, there was plenty of doubt – and suspense – throughout St. Francis’ 21-25, 25-20, 26-24 win against Champaign Centennial in Friday’s IHSA Class 3A state semifinal at Redbird Arena. The Spartans advance to the state championship match at 5:30 p.m. tonight against Richmond-Burton, which edged Jacksonville in another three-game thriller.
In decisive Game 3, Champaign Centennial led, 23-22, before Spartans junior Maddie Haggerty notched a kill to tie it up. Then, after the teams traded points, it was time for her little sister, freshman Molly Haggerty, to seize the moment, cracking kills on the final two points of the match to put St. Francis over the top.
Molly Haggerty continued the festive postgame mood in dissecting how she was able to handle the season-on-the-line pressure as a freshman.
“I try to hit it as hard as I can, I guess,” she said. “I don’t really think about it. Like ‘Stoner’ said, ‘Don’t think.’ “
Kopec quickly interjected that her 6-foot freshman was referring to assistant coach Lisa Stone. Senior setter McKenna Kelsay, who piled up 37 assists, said she and Molly Haggerty (11 kills) are connecting much better than was the case early this season.
“Now it’s every ball, if I set her, I know it’s either going to go down, or it’s going to be a good ball,” Kelsay said.
“For a freshman, she’s really composed and calm,” she added. “It’s not going to get in her head if she makes mistakes. That’s a great quality to have. As her setter, it’s great to know she has that so in the tough points I can be able to give it to her.”
The Chargers (36-5), who beat the Spartans (36-5) in three games in a downstate tournament in early September, entered Friday’s semifinal winners of 12 of their past 13 matches, while St. Francis had won 12 straight. Centennial coach Stan Bergman thought the teams had a much better handle on one another the second time around.
“I loved this match tonight,” Bergman said. “If there’s going to be a match played in this setting, this is the kind of match that we want. We want to be playing up against the best, we want to be challenged, we want to be pushed.
“I love this match. It was fantastic from start to finish.”
In Game 1, the Spartans rode a strong start at the net and the service line from sophomore middle hitter Mary Boken (team-high three aces) to jump ahead. St. Francis led by six points four times in the game, including at 15-9, before the Chargers rallied in resounding fashion.
Centennial caught St. Francis at 17-all, then parlayed booming, topspin serves from senior Kara Johnson to surge to a 24-18 lead en route to victory.
The Spartans, though pulled away midway through the second game for a 25-20 win that was capped by Molly Haggerty’s emphatic block. Maddie Haggerty contributed a kill that put St. Francis up 14-12 in the game before serving three straight points to give the Spartans a 17-12 advantage.
Maddie Haggerty (team-high 13 kills) is playing in a state tournament for the second school in as many years after winning a 4A state title with Benet last season. She doesn’t appear to regret transferring to play with Molly at St. Francis, although the Redwings are also in Normal this weekend, competing in 4A.
“I really feel she’s my twin. You can’t tell she’s like, 13? Fourteen?,” Maddie Haggerty corrected after drawing laughter from her teammates. “It’s just fun to experience this with your sister because when we get older we can look back on this and reminisce and have a good time.”
Libero Sam Dubiel led the way with 13 digs for St. Francis, which arrived in Normal hunting its ninth state championship under Kopec and first since 2006, the last year of the two-class system. The Spartans took third in 3A last season.
By now, Kopec knows how to live it up at Redbird Arena.
“When’s the last time you guys had this much fun?” Kopec asked reporters as the news conference wound down.
The Spartans hope there is one more chance for major merriment tonight.