NORMAL – Peg Kopec would have preferred to hug Mary Boken but, under the circumstances, putting her hand on Boken's arm had to suffice.
The Spartans, fresh off winning the IHSA Class 3A girls volleyball state championship, 25-21, 25-20, against Richmond-Burton on Saturday night at Redbird Arena, were overwhelmed by powerful and complicated emotions in their triumph's aftermath.
The state title was St. Francis' ninth under Kopec and first since 2006, when Boken's older sister, Megan Boken, was one of the team's standouts. In August, Megan Boken was shot and killed in St. Louis, creating an emotionally charged backdrop to the season.
"The last team that won a state championship was my sister's team," a sobbing Boken said during the postgame news conference, as Kopec reached to comfort her and many of the sophomore's teammates fought their own tears. "I've been dreaming about this since I was a little girl. All you girls have stepped up and were my sisters for me this season. And it means so much to me."
This was a year unlike any other throughout Kopec's hall of fame career. Almost every wrinkle throughout the season – including wearing their traditional, vintage championship match uniforms on Saturday night – were tinged with tribute to Megan Boken, who played collegiately at Saint Louis University.
"We've thought a lot about Megan this year, and we haven't talked about it a lot," Kopec said. " ... It wasn't something that we spoke out loud about probably until right now, too much. But we've felt that she's been with us, and we've been with her.
"Once a Spartan, always a Spartan."
St. Francis (37-5) did its rich volleyball heritage proud on Saturday, surging down the stretch to break free from a 16-all, Game 1 tie, then controlling the second game before a too-little, too-late Rockets rally.
The Spartans led by as many as 12 points in the second game, allowing Kopec to insert deep reserves Kate Keegan and Casey Salandra. But the Rockets (37-5) found their footing to cut into the deficit, thanks largely to scooting back to deal with St. Francis' deep serves, according to Richmond-Burton coach Kaycee Kaywood.
"When we were in system tonight, obviously we're pretty unstoppable, so that was kind of the adjustment that we made, to back up a little bit on serve-receive and try to get back in system," Kaywood said.
St. Francis junior outside hitter Becca Shearer and senior setter McKenna Kelsay leapt in unison to bat down a there-for-the-taking ball that just made it over the net for match point, with Shearer appearing to notch the decisive touch.
The tears of joy and sorrow began falling soon after.
Kopec considers St. Francis volleyball a family in every sense. The evidence on this year's roster is plentiful. Aside from the Boken connection, junior Maddie Haggerty and freshman Molly Haggerty emerged as the team's top offensive weapons, and Kelsay is the younger sister of former St. Francis standout Kristen Kelsay.
"We've received so many notes," Kopec said. "Just today, it really touched my heart, somebody texted a message and they signed their name, but then they put their number from when they were at St. Francis. We have an awful lot of, all ages, women, that are rooting for these girls."
Kelsay had 27 assists in the title match while Molly Haggerty capped a remarkable freshman season with a team-high 12 kills.
"All of these girls are my best friends," Kelsay said. "Winning it with them makes it that much more special. Winning it after everything we've been through is absolutely amazing. It's an incredible feeling."
Maddie Haggerty, who won a 4A state title with Benet last year before transferring to St. Francis, acknowledged there was much more than pure joy at work on Saturday night. What it was, it's hard to say.
"I don't even know what I'm feeling right now," Maddie Haggerty said. "There are so many emotions I'm feeling, I don't even know what it is."
A state championship, and so much more.