HUNTLEY – Amid the late-season tension and stress involved with first-place Huntley clinging to a one-match lead in the Fox Valley Conference standings, Red Raiders coach Karen Naymola is urging her players to have fun.
Naymola's team took that advice to heart early in the second set of its FVC match against Prairie Ridge on Thursday, which Huntley won, 25-15, 25-19.
Between points, while tied at 5 in the second set, Red Raiders senior Taylor Jakubowski took her right hand – with an open palm – and playfully pushed junior teammate Emma Konie's face sideways. The pair simultaneously erupted into bursts of laughter.
"Emma was taking things too serious," Jakubowski said. "It was my way of telling her to lighten up, get out of her own head and have a little fun out there."
Given what's at stake, it's understandable Konie (team-high nine kills, eight digs) would have her game face on. After their win Thursday, the Red Raiders (24-4, 15-1 FVC) can clinch at least a share of the conference title with a victory in either of their final two FVC matches.
"If I'm struggling for a few points, I try to remind myself to loosen up and not dwell on what just happened," Konie said. "And having teammates who come up and remind me, 'Hey, Emma, you're fine, you're good,' it's something that really helps."
Huntley controls its destiny and clinches the title outright if it wins its final two FVC matches, or with a win and a Crystal Lake Central loss. Regardless of how that scenario plays out, the Red Raiders will enter the postseason as a No. 1 seed in the Class 4A Dundee-Crown Sectional this month.
Despite scoring the first nine points of the opening set against Prairie Ridge, Huntley struggled to put the resiliant Wolves (14-14, 9-7) away in the second set. With her team trailing, 16-13, due in large part to the play of Prairie Ridge senior Trinity Sheridan (match-best 13 kills), Naymola called timeout and repeated her 'have fun' mantra.
"We were coming off two tough back-to-back losses [to Belvidere North and Crystal Lake Central] before this win," Naymola said. "So I definitely didn't want to let this one go to a third set. During that timeout, I told the girls to stop overanalyzing every point when things don't go their way.
"Most of these girls have been playing together for a long time. They have talent. They have chemistry. Sometimes you just have to move on from a difficult stretch and be confident in yourself without fear."
Naymola's inspirational words worked. Following the timeout, the Red Raiders scored the next nine points, closing the book on the Wolves for good. Kylie Jenkins (nine digs), Josie Schmitendorf (eight digs) and Ashley Konecki (four kills, two aces) were among the other Huntley starters who contributed.
Prairie Ridge coach Stefanie Otto was pleased with her team's effort in the second set but admitted she'd like to see that same energy level the entire match.
"When we get momentum, we need to learn how to sustain those runs," Otto said. "We were in a real nice rhythm late in that second set for a while, and after that timeout, we just didn't match their energy all of the sudden.
"And we also have to limit our own mistakes. We had 16 hitting errors. That's too many points to be giving away to a team that just doesn't make mistakes of their own very often. I was encouraged by some things I saw tonight. But I need to see more of it."
The Wolves got a team-high 17 assists from Hannah Baudin, seven digs from Ansley Morlock and three aces from Kaylin Mitchell.
STAR OF THE MATCH
Huntley, sr., setter
The Seton Hall recruit was her typical self Thursday, posting a team-high 15 assists, eight digs and five kills.
Times the Red Raiders went on 9-0 runs during the match, once in the first set, then again midway through the second set.
AND ANOTHER THING ...
"Mentally, this was a very important match for us following a pair of losses," Huntley coach Karen Naymola said. "Prairie Ridge is a good team. They adjusted in-game well and gave us a real battle."