BY PATRICK KELLEY
---- — DANVILLE — The white volleyball hung in the air for the briefest of seconds as Schlarman Academy junior Laura Gross saw her opportunity to pounce.
Eyeing her prey, Gross sprang from the hardwood floor and swung her hand toward the spheroid like the arm of a turbo charged windmill, smacking the ball toward the out-of-bounds line with precision of a laser-guided cruise missile.
The ball sailed untouched past the Oakwood defense and smacked the ground just inches inside the line, prompting a choreographed “ohh, kill em!” cheer from the Topless Toppers, Schlarman’s student section.
The play was a summation of Schlarman’s senior night as the Toppers dispatched of the Comets in two games 25-4, 25-10.
Gross had 11 kills with three assists, Janelle Marion had nine kills and nine assists and Jordan Marganski had 14 assists and four kills.
While the first game of the night saw few hiccups for the Toppers – Schlarman started the game on a 6-0 run and finished with a 9-2 run – they found themselves down early in the second game when Oakwood sprang out of the gates with a 4-1 lead. A phenomenon that Oakwood head coach Lynn Anderson attributes to Schlarman slip-ups.
“I think they changed,” Anderson said. “They made mistakes in that second game that they didn’t make in the first game. They hit it in the net and one went way out.
“Did we play better? Yes, we did. I mean we stepped it up. I just think we got points due to their mistakes, and I highly respect that team. When I say they made some mistakes they didn’t make (in the first game,) that is a compliment to them.”
Anderson’s assessment of the Toppers second game start was echoed by Schlarman head coach Heidi Crane.
Crane’s squad will head to Quincy today for an invitational that features schools in classes up to 4A in preparation for Monday’s regional tournament. And Crane knows that a sloppy second game start could be the team’s Achilles heel come the postseason.
“They just kind of let up, they started backing up on their coverage (in the second game) ... and weren’t playing their game,” Crane said. “It does (worry me.) Every time she (Anderson) called a timeout, I was talking to them, telling them they needed to pick up the pace because going into tomorrow we start off with Mascoutah … They’re not going to get away with that. They aren’t gonna be able to play that way when they’re all standing straight up.”
As slowly as they stared, the Toppers finished equally strong, closing out the second game with a 16-1 run to cap off a 22-3 regular season with an unblemished 13-0 record in the VVC.
The 2013-2014 squad is the first class that Crane has coached from their freshman year as Crane, and her assistant coach Maileen Calhoun came on the coaching staff four years ago.
“It’s kind of sad because this is the first group we’ve started with,” Crane said. Jordan (Marganski) I’ve known her since she was little. Janelle (Marion), I had her when I coached at holy family and Lexi (Rangel), I met her her freshman year here. I’ve been around the girls for quite a while … it’s sad to see them go, but I know they’re going to be successful.”
Crane wasn’t the only coach with admiration for her players, though. After the matchup, as the teams were shaking hands, Lynn Anderson approached Gross – who has one year left with the Toppers -- to convey her respects and to wish the Toppers, and Gross, well.
“I told her that I respect her as a player,” Anderson said. “I just know she’s good. She’s a tough player. She can play all the positions and she’s just good. I don’t know what else to say. She’s just a great player, period.”
With the perfect conference record sealed and regional relevance re-established, Gross admits that gaining the respect of her competition is rewarding.
“I think that we’ve definitely earned it, Gross said. “We haven’t been on top of the conference for quite a while, so getting back into that rhythm and earning it is really nice. When you see that other people are noticing also that we have grown as a team that nice. It’s a good feeling. “
While the Toppers are in competition today, their postseason begins Tuesday at the Cissna Park regional where they will face the winner of Milford v. Christ Lutheran High School (Buckley,) and as far as Anderson is concerned, she wants the Toppers to go all the way.
“I wish Schlarman a trip to state,” Anderson said. I’ve been there once and it’s amazing. It’s amazing.”
However, when Marganski was asked about the prospect of making it to the season’s final game she just lifted her index finger and said, “One game at a time.”