CRYSTAL LAKE – Crystal Lake Central started Wednesday’s Class 3A Crystal Lake South Sectional title match against Belvidere North with what looked like a very real postseason swagger, alongside a palpable sense of determination.
That type of play allowed the Tigers to coast to a dominant 12-point first-set victory.
Smiles were flowing freely on Central’s bench for some time after that, and the mood remained lighthearted among its six players on the court, as well.
But as play resumed in the second set, the Blue Thunder (36-3) made it abundantly clear they weren’t about to roll over and quit.
North clawed its way back for a gutsy 13-25, 25-23, 25-21 win and advances to face Sterling (33-6) in the Class 3A LaSalle-Peru Supersectional at 6 p.m. Friday.
“I do have to give them credit,” Tigers junior Maddy McCormick said. “Belvidere started to change in the second set and move against our offense.
“After that, we stopped playing back to their level and sort of let them take the tone of the game instead of us doing it.”
Despite the second set being considerably tougher, the Tigers (35-4) didn’t trail by more than three at any point during that second set.
The third set was equally gut-wrenching, but had a sort of treading water feel to it. Central never trailed by more than four, but the only times it led was at 10-9 and 11-10.
The Blue Thunder made adjustments offensively, as well.
“Belvidere North made some nice adjustments in the second and third sets to try and throw our blockers off a little bit,” Tigers coach Lisa Brunstrum said. “And then we started making more unforced errors [six each in the second and third sets, three in the first].
“In the postseason, there’s just such little margin for error. You give a team any kind of momentum, on a big error, a big block or a big kill, and it can drastically alter the outcome of a match. But I’m still incredibly proud of how our girls continued to fight, all the way up to the end.”
Among those girls were Karina Simatos (20 digs), Madeline Timmerman (five kills, six digs), Camryn Hausler (16 assists, 10 digs, five kills, three blocks), Grace Levin (15 assists), Olivia Anderson (three blocks, three kills) and Madde Blake (six kills, eight digs).
The Tigers graduate five seniors (Blake, Levin, Hausler, Anderson and Lilyann Penza) and senior manager Victoria Anderson.
“We have six seniors,” Brunstrum said. “All of them have been with me for the last three seasons. They were all part of the team that went downstate in 2017. So this group helped put us on the map, in Class 4A at the time.
“They helped make a name for our school and our girls volleyball program. That’s huge. I want these girls to leave here knowing the difference they’ve all made. I made it a point to thank our seniors tonight for their high expectations, leadership, dedication … not only in their time here, but for years to come.”
After the match, Blake openly wept as she reminisced about her four years playing for Brunstrum.
“I cannot thank my teammates, my coaches and everyone I’ve encountered during my time here enough,” Blake said. “The memories I’m left with because I was part of this program are something no one can ever take away from us. So while this is a sad moment, it’s also me realizing just how special it was to be a part of it all. Thank you all.”
Kaitlin Leider had 11 kills for the Blue Thunder, while Rachel Scott and Ava Irvin had six apiece.
STAR OF THE MATCH
Crystal Lake Central, jr., OH
She was a sparkplug both on offense and defense for the Tigers, tallying 18 digs and 13 kills.
12: The Tigers' biggest lead during the first set. After that point, their biggest lead was never more than one the rest of the three-set match.
AND ANOTHER THING ...
"We're all a family," Tigers senior Grace Levin said. "Even though some of us will never play together again, this will always be a family."