SPRINGFIELD — After a two-set loss to Mahomet-Seymour on Oct. 2, Jay McAtee knew that Mount Zion wasn't going to win the Apollo Conference.
So in the practice following the loss, he rebuilt his defense. He challenged the Braves' volleyball team and pushed them.
That rebuilt defense helped propel the Braves to a 18-25, 25-15, 25-23 win over Taylorville in the Class 3A Springfield (Sacred Heart-Griffin) Sectional championship on Wednesday.
It was Mount Zion's (29-10) first win over the Tornadoes this season and the second consecutive supersectional appearance for the Braves after advancing for the first time in school history last year.
Mount Zion travels to Bethalto Civic Memorial at 7 p.m. Friday to play Belleville Althoff for the second year in the supersectionals.
The win started with defense, which can be traced back to the Oct. 2 loss.
“We went back to the gym, and I told the girls, ‘It’s not going to be pretty,'" McAtee said. "They got bloody, they got bruised and they got on the floor. They had a totally different mentality. That’s the difference for the last three or four weeks. Our defense is good and our offense is great."
Taylorville (30-9) raced out to a first-set lead, finding gaps in the Braves' defense behind the offense of Liz Curtin and Natalie Snyder, and strong work at the net from Hannah Clayton and Snyder.
Then the Braves' defense locked in for the second and third sets. Reiley Drake led the charge with 15 digs, flying across the floor. Ali Vaughn had 17 digs, Karlee McAtee had 15 and Caitlyn Maley and Emily Cole each had 10 of their own.
“Before, our defense was still good but there were gaps in our defense," Mount Zion senior Dayna Kennedy said. "Having that switch tonight it really helped us and we got the pass up to Ali and it made it easier for the hitters to put it down."
Karlee McAtee struggled to get over the towering Taylorville front line early in the first set, but as the Braves settled in, so did McAtee.
She finished with 13 kills to go with nine from Kennedy and six from Cole.
For bouts in the second and third sets when Taylorville closed the gaps and threatened Mount Zion's lead and chances for a second straight supersectional match against Althoff, Karlee McAtee had to battle through internal frustration.
‘I cannot stand when we are down, especially when the score gets closer I start to get a little bit more momentum," Karlee McAtee said. "I think that we pushed our way through and it feels really good.
“We figured out where other teams hit and we kind of figured it out from there."
When the Tornadoes blocked her at the net time and time again, she looked at her dad, looking for directions on where to hit. He directed her towards the line, and she painted the stripe with a fast and ferocious spike.
“They were confident and I think we relaxed a little bit in the second set," Taylorville coach Kim Peabody said. "The third set was back-and-forth and it was a dogfight until the end. They controlled the ball a little bit more and they had such a powerful offense that they came out with the victory.
“They obviously have more offensive weapons than we do. We knew that. This was the third time we’ve played them. We’re a defensive team."
On a senior-laden Mount Zion team, Cole, a sophomore, stepped in.
Jay McAtee knew her breakout was coming. Cole had drastically improved her hitting percentage after switching positions to middle hitter, and buckled down when the Braves needed to find space after the first set.
“The second and third set, our mentality really changed," Cole said. "We knew we had to step it up and we knew we had to play together as a team and come back strong because we knew they wanted it just as much as we did. We played as a team and nobody got down and we stayed strong."
Said Jay McAtee: “She had that little sparkle in her eyes. She’s a little bit inconsistent but when she’s good, she’s immensely talented. When she’s in the right frame of mind like she was tonight — when I see her smiling and she’s locked in, she’s really good.'
There is plenty of offense to go around on the Braves, but the key to another deep playoff run — one that doesn't include an Apollo Conference title —was a re-imagination of the defense.
“They say defense wins champions, but we needed a lot of defense and a lot of offense and a little bit of everything," Jay McAtee said.