HUNTLEY – St. Charles East knew the unfolding situation all too well.
It was the Saints' issue.
This season, third sets in matches hardly went their way.
Heading into Monday's Class 4A Huntley Sectional semifinal against Belvidere North, the Saints had only won two of 12 three-set matches.
After Monday night, boom goes the narrative.
The Saints oulasted the Blue Thunder 25-20, 25-27, 25-19 to advance to Wednesday's sectional final against Huntley. The Red Raiders stunned St. Charles North 23-25, 25-21, 25-21 in the second semifinal.
"We know the stat," said East senior outside hitter Calli Gentry, who finished with a team-high 16 kills. "We've heard it a bunch of times in practice, but we just really wanted to come out and prove to everyone [what] we can do. We can win that third set."
It nearly didn't get there.
The Saints (24-14) had a 23-20 lead in the second set, just two points away from sweeping. A Saints attack error and a Kaitlin Leider kill closed the gap to one. Saints senior Sam Urban and Leider traded kills, but the Blue Thunder (34-4) answered with two back to tie at 24-24. Later tied at 25, Belvidere North survived two Saints attack errors to take the second set.
The Saints responded in convincing fashion behind Kirsten Rogers (six kills, 10 digs), McKenna Slavik (32 assists,19 digs), Rachel Sheehan (nine kills) and Gentry. The Saints took an 11-6 lead in the third set, which forced Belvidere North to take its final timeout. The Saints kept their foot on the gas the rest of the way.
"I think that they knew what they had to do, how it felt and where they needed to go," Saints coach Jennie Kull said of the third set. "After [Belvidere North called their] second timeout, they said, 'Well, that's their second timeout, they're done, we've got to finish.'"
The crosstown rival North Stars, however, ultimately could not close the deal.
Huntley, which has now won 22 straight matches, saw its streak of 42 straight sets won snapped during the first set Monday.
Huntley (35-3) at one point led 23-18, but self-inflicted attack errors and an onslaught by Katie Lanz and GiGi Crescenzo (16 kills) stormed the North Stars (31-7) back.
In the second set, the North Stars were seemingly poised for a rematch of last year's sectional final versus the Saints with the 21-16 North advantage. Huntley, backed by Seton Hall-bound setter Taylor Jakubowki (38 assists, 22 digs) and Julia Johnson (17 kills), rose to a shocking 9-0 run to force a third set.
"We said it's going to be the team that makes less errors that wins," North Stars coach Lindsey Hawkins said. "We made a few too many when it really counted, especially in that second set. We blew the lead, and they're [Huntley] a fighting kind of team."
The North Stars and Red Raiders were knotted at 17-17 in the third set, but Huntley ripped a 4-0 run out of a timeout. St. Charles North pulled within 22-21 on a pair of Lanz kills, and one each from Kyla Lannert and Crescenzo, but their magic ran out.
Jakubowki and a pair of North Stars attack errors finished the job.
"We got ahead and we got comfortable," Lanz said. "We started not being able to execute the ball...I was proud that we came back the third game fighting and we didn't give up."
"We fought our best," Grace Lilly said. "It's the best way to go out after losing a game like that."
The North Stars' team bond, however, will live on.
"We'll hold onto the memories and each other forever," Crescenzo said.
"Our relationships are so strong, and it's not going to end just because of a loss," added Lilly.