BY AARON PATTERSON
All Schlarman Academy senior Ella Black wanted was another chance to play on her home court. The Hilltoppers outside hitter celebrated Senior Night on Oct. 16 with a win over Milford, and though she was the team’s lone senior, the night wasn’t simply brushed away as insignificant. She had the full support of her teammates.
The team had plenty of confidence, as well, realizing that if it got through the regional, they would be hosting a Class 1A sectional.
“On Senior Night, we all talked about how this wasn’t going to be her last home game because we were going to be there again,” Schlarman Academy junior Jordan Marganski said.
And Marganski and the Hilltoppers followed through with their promise by defeating the top-seeded Cissna Park Timberwolves 2-1 (25-7, 22-25, 25-20) to take home the program’s first regional championship since 2009, and third in the last five years.
Schlarman’s 2009 regional title was Black’s freshman year, and coach Heidi Crane’s first year in charge of the Hilltoppers.
“I wasn’t thinking about it too much during the game, but after the game, I was really, really, excited,” Black said of the opportunity to play again on her home court.
“It feels really good (to win the regional) because I’m a senior and this is my last year. I think we all just really want it. We’ve all worked really hard for this. We play with a lot of heart, and I think we have so much potential.”
The Hilltoppers showed their potential in the first set when they took a commanding lead and never looked back. Schlarman Academy gained serve by tying the set at 4-4, and sophomore Joslyn Dietzen served the Hilltoppers to six consecutive points. Then, at 11-5, Marganski stepped to the line for six more points before Black closed out the set with seven of her match-high 12 service points.
Black also had eight kills and five digs, while Marganski finished with nine kills, 20 assists, and four blocks. Sophomore Laura Gross had 16 assists, 12 kills, and eight blocks, and Janelle Marion put down seven kills. But it was freshman Sierra Bell, who had a match high 12 digs, that ultimately caught the attention of Crane.
“I think Sierra really stepped up,” Crane said. “This could be a game where a freshman in the back row could have a little bit of an issue, but she was right there for every single hit. She pushed on through.”
Despite the impressive first-set win, defense — and aggressive play — proved to be key later in the match as the Hilltoppers dropped the second set and trailed the entire set after going down 5-4.
More uncertainty loomed in the third as Cissna Park never backed off. The Timberwolves held a steady advantage throughout the set and never showed signs of permanently surrendering the lead until the Hilltoppers gained a 16-15 advantage on a kill by Black. It was the first of back-to-back kills by the Schlarman Academy senior, and was a pair of much-needed hits that sparked the Hilltoppers.
“I think we just realized that we had to dig down deep and push through, even though it was just really back and forth with both teams,” Black said. “We just pushed in that last game. We really wanted it, and we played with a lot of heart.”
It was only the third time this season that the Hilltoppers (27-5) battled back to win a three-set match.
Though she admitted there were moments in the match that got a little “scary,” Crane never doubted her team’s ability to work through the adversity of falling behind.
“Deep down I knew this shouldn’t have been the end of the season tonight,” Crane said. “They are very strong. I don’t think we came out and played like we did Tuesday (in the semifinal). They’ve got strengths. I don’t think we had everybody on fire like we did on Tuesday. But, we’re trying to push through. I think they’re starting to realize their potential.”
The Hilltoppers look forward to continuing to show their potential on Tuesday when they take on LeRoy in one of two Schlarman Academy Sectional semifinal matches. LeRoy advanced by defeating DeLand-Weldon 25-13, 25-11 to secure the program’s first-ever regional title.
A win on Tuesday would advance Schlarman Academy to the sectional title match against the winner of Grant Park and Streator (Woodland). The Hilltoppers’ last sectional championship came in 2006 when they eventually saw their season come to an end in the state quarterfinals.
“It just feels really good,” Black said. “It’s so exciting. I think we have a really good chance to go really far, and I believe in us.”
Tuesday’s match against LeRoy is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., immediately following the first semifinal set for a 6 p.m. start.