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Druley: Downstate trips Normal for St. Francis volleyball

St. Francis head volleyball coach Peg Kopec talks with her team before practice Wednesday afternoon.
St. Francis head volleyball coach Peg Kopec talks with her team before practice Wednesday afternoon.

St. Francis junior middle hitter Mary Boken insists there’s still plenty of novelty in traveling to the Class 3A girls volleyball state tournament.

That she’s embarking on her third trip to Redbird Arena in Normal in as many high school seasons this weekend doesn’t matter.

“We definitely get really excited every time, and sometimes it’s hard to imagine what a real privilege it is to go down and everything,” Boken said. “But when we step back and think about it, we definitely try to make sure that we realize every time that it’s a really great experience, and every time it surprises me, what a great feeling it is to step on the court.”

St. Francis stands two victories shy of the program’s 10th state title, having clinched No. 9 in 2012. Here’s a glance at some other Spartans’ notes entering today’s 6 p.m. state semifinal against Breese Central:

Being resilient: Nebraska-bound senior outside hitter Maddie Haggerty suffered a torn labrum in early October. It arguably ranked as the highest-profile of the bunch, but still stands as just one of four season-ending injuries the team has endured.

Spartans coach Peg Kopec has grown used to retooling the roster as a result. She recently promoted 6-foot-1 freshman Laney Malloy, a setter with the sophomore team, to boost the Spartans’ blocking component opposite her twin sister, the more offensive-minded Kamryn Malloy.

“The one nice thing about it, it makes all these kids versatile, you know,” Kopec said.

Friends indeed: Kopec enters her 18th state tournament with the Spartans with a 1,157-222-2 career record in 38 seasons.

She guided St. Francis downstate for the first time in 1987 and captured her first state title the following fall, and is often reminded of both feats.

The Spartans defeated Fremd, 15-7, 12-15, 15-11 (remember sideout scoring?) for third in 1987. Following a brief retirement, then-Vikings coach Dave Boze joined St. Francis as an assistant a few seasons ago.

“Got tired of being around old people,” Boze said, “so came back with the kids.”

Kopec grins while saying the result “doesn’t come up much, but, you know…”

As for the team’s inaugural title, Kopec recently has been wearing the 1988 championship ring, which is fashioned like all the others. Either personally or through a Facebook page for St. Francis volleyball alumni, she asks each former Spartans state champion to wear her ring – or an identical pendant for repeat champs – this time of year for support.

“There’s older ladies with children and older children, and they’re pulling for them,” Kopec said. “So that’s kind of nice.”

Spartan sisterhood: Boken feels especially attached to the Spartans’ current seniors. Middle hitter Kristin Acciavatti, libero Sam Dubiel and outside hitter/setter Becca Shearer were teammates on last year’s title team and St. Francis’ third-place finishers in 2011.

“Definitely, freshman year I was new to the team and didn’t know everyone that well, but the seniors this year, it’s going to be really hard to lose them,” Boken said. “We’re really close. It’ll be a special experience to share with them.”

History lesson: St. Francis and Breese Central both traveled to the Effingham Crossroads Classic in mid-September, but the Spartans did not encounter the Cougars en route to the tournament title. St. Francis swept fellow state semifinalist Payton, 25-11, 25-18 in pool play.

Kopec is 2-0 against Breese Central in her state tournament career. defeating the Cougars in tournament openers in 1997 and 2003. Both seasons ended with state championships.

• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or

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