BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — STREATOR — Schlarman Academy senior Jordan Marganski admitted the Hilltoppers felt a little weary walking into the Woodland High School gymnasium on Saturday night.
A year ago, the Hilltoppers saw their season come to a sudden conclusion with a 25-10, 25-11 loss to Mt. Pulaski in the IHSA Class 1A Super-sectional.
This year, Woodland is the host of IHSA Class 1A Sectional and Schlarman (25-3) proved to be a much different team this time around, beating Blue Ridge 25-18, 25-18 to advanced to Thursday's sectional championship match.
"We walked in and shuttered because of last year's performance was such a painful memory,'' said Marganski, who finished with a team-high 10 assists to go along with two kills and two blocks. "It was a painful memory but the atmosphere in this gym was so different this year.
"It might have been that we weren't as tense. We just didn't work ourselves up as much. We felt more comfortable on the court.''
That was hard to tell at the start of both sets. Blue Ridge jumped out to a 4-1 in the opening set and the Knights (26-9) led 6-1 in the second set.
"We didn't quite have the fire that we needed at the start of either set,'' Marganski said.
Schlarman coach Heidi Crane thought the first set problems was a little bit of jitters and the previous experience in the Woodland Gym.
"The last time we were here, we weren't as successful as we would have liked,'' Crane said. "That may have been in the back of their minds. Once they got over that, they were ready to go.
"It was partially the passing and some of it was the girls weren't be as aggressive as they needed to be. Some of the first volleys in each set were tip, tip and tip. We needed to be more aggressive.''
Ultimately, the turning point in the first set came when Schlarman took a 19-18 lead on a play where Blue Ridge had the ball hit the antenna, but only the line judge saw it. Despite her attempts to signal the match official, play continued, and Schlarman finally hit the ball out. After a brief discussion between all the officials, the point was given to the Hilltoppers.
Schlarman then scored the game's final six points on the serve of Shelby Mascari to win the first set 25-18. Marganski and Laura Gross, who had six kills, each had a block during that final stretch.
"It was a lot of missed communication going on and we just told each other to push through it,'' Mascari said. "Once we started doing it, our passing came together and that helped the sets and our hits went down.''
Mascari also played a key role in the Hilltoppers second set turnaround. The sophomore had five of her team-high eight kills helping Schlarman turned a 10-8 deficit into a 15-13 lead.
"I just knew that I needed to push more,'' Mascari said. "My team was giving all they had and I had to give all I had. I just tried to put things down and place them, being smart with the ball.''
While Mascari had a team-high eight kills, Schlarman also got seven from senior Janelle Marion, while Gross finished with six.
"We are very lucky that we have an offense that has a very balanced attack up front with every rotation,'' said Crane, as the Hilltoppers had five players with at least one kill, and they also had five players with at least one assists. "We have hitters in every spot on our front row.''
Marganski said it was big to get Mascari going in that second set.
"When you have a player is on like that, it takes pressure off of the rest of the team,'' she said. "Shelby is a great contributing player on this team.''
Blue Ridge's Gabby Pearl had a match-high 11 kills, while Breanna Davis had 11 assists and Emily Zelhart finished with nine assists for the Knights.
Up next for Schlarman is Thursday's IHSA Class 1A Sectional Championship match against Lexington, a 25-16, 22-25, 25-16 winner over Grant Park on Tuesday night. The Minutemen are 26-10-1 this season.
Thursday's match is slated for a 7 p.m. start at Woodland High School. The winner will advance to Saturday's IHSA Class 1A Super-Sectional match in Mt. Pulaski.