SALEM – Jay McAtee doesn't have any doubts about which team will hoist the Class 3A volleyball state championship next Saturday at Redbird Arena in Normal.
Mount Zion's coach saw first hand just how lethal Belleville Althoff Catholic can be Friday night at the Class 3A Salem Super-sectional when the Crusaders ended the Braves' season 25-10, 25-21.
“They'll win state,” McAtee said. “There is nobody that can touch them. Nobody has the combination of precision and athletes across the board.”
Althoff (39-1) raced out to an early lead on the Braves on the first set, largely in part to its stifiling defense at the net and balanced offensive attack.
The Crusaders got a hand on seemingly everything at the net, turning away the kill attempts of the potent Mount Zion (35-5) offense, led by Karlee McAtee, Dayna Kennedy, Reiley Drake, Kaitlyn Lillpop and Hayden Engelbrecht.
Karlee McAtee and Kennedy each had five kills to lead the Braves.
After trailing 7-1 early in the first set, the Braves couldn't climb back to within real striking distance.
At the beginning of the second set, it looked like it was destined to be much of the same. Althoff got out to a 10-5 lead and appeared to have Mount Zion on the ropes.
But the Braves absorbed the first of the punches from the Crusaders in the second set, rallying back within two, 14-16.
“They went from playing scared to kind of ticked off,” Jay McAtee said. “It was a different mindset. They had played long enough that the nerves were gone. They were a little upset and they played angry instead of playing scared. We battled toe-to-toe with them, but there's not a team in Illinois who is going to hang toe-to-toe with them for an entire match.”
The front line of the Crusaders was anchored by Miami (Ohio) University commit Louise Comerford, a 6-foot setter, Karinna Gall, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, and 5-foot-10 outside hitter Addie Burris.”
“We focus a lot on our blocking and our defense and a quick transition to get a quick one ball to the other side of the net,” Althoff coach Sara Dietrich said. “We just came out and played our game.”
Ali Vaughn had 14 assists for the Braves and Karlee McAtee had two blocks.
Althoff will play Normal University Friday in the semifinal round at Redbird Arena.
Speeding it up
All season, Jay McAtee has seemingly been preparing his team for the postseason by ramping up the speed of the game. And all season, the Braves have found success on the way to an Apollo Conference championship and the first sectional championship in school history.
But on Friday, the Crusaders took what Mount Zion has been trying to do to the next level.
“They are an amazing team,” McAtee said. “They run at everything at a speed that nobody is used to. They're just amazingly intelligent about volleyball. When they go up, they're not looking to hit the ball, they're looking at where to hit the ball. There's the old saying, 'Hit them where they ain't.' They're a brilliant team.”
It was the first Super-sectional appearance for the Braves, and all things considered, outside of the first set, the Braves looked like contenders to upset the Crusaders.
But, the Braves graduate three seniors and bring back a highly regarded junior class along with standout sophomore Karlee McAtee.
It may be a cliché, but these things are a process and Mount Zion is completing its requisite steps in that process.
“You've got to take it one step at a time and now we know what it's like to be here and we know what we have to do between now and next year to be at this level and speed everything up and just get better,” Jay McAtee said. “We realize the group that we have coming back is going to be special for many, many years. This just shows the girls what the goal is.”
Althoff comes from the highly-populated Metro East. Though a 3A team, the Crusaders have been playing up all season, scheduling opponents they won't see in the postseason.
It's paid off.
“In our area, we've got O'Fallon, Edwardsville, (Belleville) East, (Belleville) West, We've even played Wheaton St. Fancis and Pekin,” Dietrich said. “I purposely have a tough schedule so hopefully it pays off for us at the end.”