ST. CHARLES – At 5-foot-7, St. Charles East junior Meagan Smith doesn't look the part of an imposing outside hitter.
"It's tough just because everyone judges you on your height, so you kind of get judged for that," Smith said. "But overall, you just have to work for it."
Smith did just that in the decisive third game Tuesday of the Saints girls volleyball team's 19-25, 25-20, 25-15 win against Batavia, helping propel East to a crucial Upstate Eight Conference River victory. Smith notched seven of her 12 kills in Game 3 as East pulled away.
With the Bulldogs' blockers doing their best to keep tabs on East junior standout Megan Schildmeyer (match-high 14 kills) and 5-foot-10 lefty Dana Voltolina, Smith was her resourceful self, picking her spots to attack wisely.
"I think it's probably being really smart because I know I'm not that tall so I can't put the ball down as hard, so I have to focus on using their hands and being smart with the ball," Smith said.
All four Tri-Cities teams – Batavia, East, Geneva and St. Charles North – entered Tuesday with only one UEC River loss apiece, making Tuesday's match vital for the Bulldogs and Saints. East (22-5, 4-1 UEC River) prevailed despite playing short-handed, most notably without middle hitters Mikaela Mosquera and Ashley Bullock.
East still had sophomore Sydney Urban to help fortify the middle, and junior Alex Mazanke did her best to fill in, playing out of position. Junior libero Anne Hughes called the match "very chaotic, but we got the job done."
"We're missing a couple middles so everyone's having to step in and play different positions," Hughes said. "The first game, we were just trying to figure out what we needed to do to put balls down and get some points, and then I think in the second game, we figured that out."
Hughes led the Saints with 26 digs, Chloe Rojas notched 17 digs and setter Carly Jimenez had 14 digs to go with her match-high 33 assists.
East coach Jennie Kull credited the Saints' defense for keeping the team together.
"That's the stability that we have no matter who's in the front row, so we're able to stay consistent there," Kull said.
Batavia (15-12, 3-2 UEC River) dominated the first game, with much of the Saints' scoring coming with the game well out of hand. The Bulldogs had a chance to close out the match, pulling within 21-20 in Game 2, but a well-placed Urban kill triggered a 4-0 Saints run to force a third game.
"In the first game, we were able to run our middles, and we were scoring," Bulldogs coach Lori Trippi-Payne said. "Then they take that away from us, and everything was all over the place. We were out of system a lot, and we struggled a little bit. Our outsides weren't able to terminate as much as they usually do."
Heather Meyer (13 kills), Audrey Faulhaber (28 assists) and Maddie Jaudon (18 digs) paced the Bulldogs, who now appear likely to tie with the loser of next week's East-Geneva match for third place in the UEC River. The winner of East-Geneva is expected to tie North for the conference crown.
Kull hustled back to St. Charles after visiting her ill mother in Champaign, calling it a stressful last few days.
But the veteran coach said Tuesday's match helped brighten her spirits, along with a text message at 4:37 a.m. from her assistant coach, Mike Bui, who reported that his wife, Kristen, had just given birth to a baby girl.
"She was [6 pounds, 3 ounces], so she'll be a libero here in 14 years," Kull said.