JOLIET – So much for the natural progression of the postseason.
Advancing is supposed to become more treacherous by the round, but the St. Francis girls volleyball team has encountered the opposite, taking its dominance to new levels on Saturday with a 25-10, 25-15 thumping of Chicago Christian in the IHSA Class 3A Joliet Catholic Supersectional.
The defending 3A state champion Spartans advance to Friday's 6 p.m. state semifinal against Rochester or Breese Central at Redbird Arena.
The Spartans (37-3) were pushed to three games in both of their matchups at regionals but have prevailed in straight sets each outing since, taking out Joliet Catholic and host Coal City in sectionals before beating Chicago Christian for the third time this season on Saturday afternoon.
"There were definitely really tough teams in our regional but it's not like the teams afterwards weren't tough, either," St. Francis junior middle hitter Mary Boken said. "I think we kind of just got ourselves in a better mindset and were ready to play, and were really excited about it."
Sophomore dynamo Molly Haggerty, who had 10 kills and three blocks, chalked up the Spartans' early-round challenges to the perils of being a program as highly regarded – and often envied – as St. Francis.
"From when I was younger, I always just wanted to beat St. Francis because I thought I was going to go to Benet, and I always wanted to beat St. Francis, so being at St. Francis, and knowing the pressure that everyone wants to beat you, I think everyone played their best games in the regionals to play against us and try to beat us," Haggerty said.
Haggerty's older sister, Nebraska recruit Maddie Haggerty, suffered a season-ending torn labrum in early October, but the Spartans are still thriving behind one of the youngest lineups Kopec has fielded in her hall of fame career.
Freshmen twin sisters Kamryn Malloy and Laney Malloy – Laney was called up part-way through the year – are both key contributors.
"So, I'm starting two freshmen and two sophomores," Kopec said. "It's hard to call Molly Haggerty a sophomore, so maybe I won't do that."
Boken, who committed to Clemson last weekend, added six kills for the Spartans. Florida recruit Sam Dubiel (17 digs), Lisa Mordell (11 service points) and Natalie Murison and Daniele Messa (nine assists each) also helped the Spartans dominate.
Mordell's 10 straight points gave the Spartans a 13-1 lead in Game 1.
Chicago Christian (28-12) returned five starters from the team that lost to St. Francis in a supersectional last year on the Knights' home court. But the Knights were often relegated to tips and scrambling returns against the Spartans' elite servers.
"It's very easy for a team like that to see that," Chicago Christian coach James Garcia said. "They're very good all the way around, offense and defense, to pick that up right away and just bring it right back to us. In that first game, right away, we could tell that our serve-receive wasn't there, wasn't up to par."
The Knights came as close as an 11-9 deficit in Game 2 before a Haggerty kill started another Spartans spurt.
"They played really well against us in conference so we were expecting a big match," Haggerty said. "I think we came out really strong, focused, focused on what we needed to do."
Kopec and Co. scrambled to make hotel plans once the match ended, but anyone who's been around St. Francis long is a seasoned traveler when it comes to central Illinois in November. The Spartans will hunt their 10th state title under Kopec next weekend.
"This will my third time going down to Redbird Arena," Boken said. "Sometimes I think we take it for granted that other teams never go there at all, but we really appreciate the opportunity."