Crystal Lake Central’s last two volleyball teams made history, earning their first Class 4A regional championship in 2015 and reaching the 4A sectional finals for the first time as a program in 2016.
This year, coach Lisa Brunstrum planned on her team’s postseason run lasting even longer into November.
And she was right.
For the second straight year, the Tigers are the last Fox Valley Conference team standing in the playoffs. Central came back and beat Prairie Ridge, 22-25, 25-22, 27-25, Wednesday in thrilling fashion to win the Wauconda Sectional final – and secure the program’s first 4A sectional title.
At 6 p.m. Friday, the Tigers (32-3) will try to extend their season further when they face New Trier at the Lake Zurich Supersectional with a trip to the state tournament at Redbird Arena at Illinois State University in Normal on the line.
All eight teams remaining in the 4A playoffs are No. 1 seeds. Central last went to state in 2009, taking fourth in 3A. The Tigers won the 3A state championship in 2007. They moved to 4A five years ago.
“I wanted this team to go down as that first one to win a 4A sectional title and kind of etch their names into the school record books,” Brunstrum said. “To watch them grow over the course of two seasons, I’m just really excited to get another day of practice with them.”
The Tigers, who crossed the 30-win mark for the fourth time in seven seasons under Brunstrum, returned their entire starting roster, making them a threat to make another deep postseason run.
Central won the outright FVC championship with a 15-1 record, losing to Huntley in conference play. The Tigers other two losses were to Huntley at the Huntley Invitational final, and Minooka, one of eight teams still playing in 4A, at the Mother McAuley Preview in mid-September.
Emily Kelly, a four-year varsity player, said last year’s sectional finals loss to DeKalb in two sets served as an important reminder for the Tigers. Kelly helped extend Central’s season with eight of her team-best 12 kills in the second set against Prairie Ridge on Wednesday.
“We definitely had a better mentality coming into this one,” Kelly said after beating Prairie Ridge. “We came into this knowing that anything can happen. It’s the postseason and anybody can win any game.”
Almost half of the Tigers’ roster is made up of underclassmen, but Central’s four senior starters – Emily Kelly, Megan Kelly, Kendall Lownds and Olivia Doak – have been a driving force for the program’s success the past four years. Central is 118-26 since 2014, or an 81.9 winning percentage.
Brunstrum can point to the growth and play of all four in any match, whether it’s Emily Kelly’s timely hitting, Megan Kelly’s unique skill set and all-around play, Lownds’ nose for the ball, or Doak’s accuracy.
Sophomores Madde Blake and Camryn Hausler are counted on for some of the Tigers’ biggest kills, and junior Paige Hulata and freshman Madeline Timmerman have been invaluable on the block. “Everything has come together,” Brunstrum said.
Blake, who tied Emily Kelly with 12 kills against Prairie Ridge, said the Tigers have grown up considerably since last season, both physically and mentally.
“We’re a lot stronger, and I think that we’ve just learned to get along really well,” Blake said. “We love playing together and none of us want to see our season end early. It’s amazing (getting this far). I’m so excited. We’ve been talking about this as a dream, and it’s honestly coming true.”
With a win over New Trier, the Tigers can start to dream bigger.