NORMAL – Tied at 21 in the first game of a Class 4A state semifinal Friday, Crystal Lake South’s inexperience began to show against Benet.
Benet, the two-time defending state champion, erased what had once been a six-point Gators lead and forced a South program making its first trip to state in 17 years to rally. The Gators, however, couldn’t recapture their early success. Benet pulled out the win in the opening game and advanced to Saturday’s final against Mother McAuley with a 25-22, 25-18 victory.
The Gators (37-4) face New Trier in the third-place match about 7:25 p.m. Saturday.
“You’re going to feel some nerves, and I think that outburst of confidence in the beginning of the set, kind of felt untouchable,” South coach Jorie Fontana said. “Then as things kind of started to creep back, the nerves definitely played a part.”
The unfamiliar stage at Redbird Arena didn’t appear to faze the Gators to start. South led most of Game 1, at one point holding a 17-11 advantage to force a Redwings timeout. But Benet (36-5) whittled away at the lead. After a South timeout, Benet tied and then took the lead off an ace and kill. Junior middle blocker Rachael Fara (match-high nine kills) sealed the win for Benet in Game 1 with a kill.
“I thought we played with great resiliency,” Benet coach Brad Baker said. “It’s kind of how our season’s been. We’ve had challenges all season long and at times we’ve just had to fight and continue to play hard. Tonight’s match was just like that.”
The Redwings carried the momentum into the second game, quickly building a 9-2 lead. Despite the deficit, the Gators fought back and managed to pull within three points, 20-17. However, Fara again came through for Benet with three kills to help the Redwings hold off South.
Benet’s blockers did their best to try to shut down South junior outside hitter Carly Nolan. The Redwings forced Nolan to tip her shots more than usual and limited the Gators’ leading hitter to six kills.
Baker said he knew Benet wouldn’t be able to stop Nolan but wanted to slow her down. The Redwings’ goal was to force the Gators to take shots they weren’t comfortable hitting. Senior middle blocker Nicole Slimko and senior outside hitter Avalon Nero added four kills apiece for South.
“They had a very big block, a strong, successful block,” Nolan said. “Me and my setter [Cassy Sivesind] weren’t really connecting. At the end we started to pick it up a little bit. I started finding some holes and getting around the block.”
Timid play on offense as the match progressed began affecting the defense’s effectiveness, Fontana said.
“As you start to play safe, the confidence starts to go a little bit and it starts to unravel all over the place,” Fontana said.
The Gators still have an opportunity to end their season with a win and their best finish at state since placing second in Class AA in 1995.
“We have to have some short-term memory on this game,” Nolan said. “There’s nothing we can do about it now. All we can do is look forward to the future and win our last game.”