WASHINGTON — The La Salle-Peru volleyball team has somewhat of a motto when it loses a first set.
“There’s three games for a reason,” L-P junior Cierra Johnson said.
The Lady Cavaliers took full advantage of that Saturday night after struggling in the first set against Champaign Centennial in the Class 3A Washington Super-Sectional.
L-P shook off the big-match jitters against a team that’s been there before for a 16-25, 25-23, 25-21 victory to earn a trip to this weekend’s IHSA State Tournament at Redbird Arena in Normal.
“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” L-P coach Mark Haberkorn said. “I’m so proud of this team. They deserve this trip to Redbird Arena. They work hard. They never give up. They pull together in tough times. They are just competitors. They really are competitors. I’m just ecstatic.”
It is L-P’s first trip to state since 1990 when the Lady Cavs placed fourth in Class AA.
“It just means a lot to bring something back to our community that they haven’t had for a while,” L-P junior Shana Puetz said. “I’m just so proud of my team. We work so hard every single day and it just feels great to go so far.”
The Lady Cavs (34-3) will face Chicago Payton (27-11), which beat Marian Central Catholic 25-23, 22-25, 25-21 in the Antioch Super-Sectional.
“I want to come out and hopefully win a state championship,” L-P senior Abby Turczyn said. “We just have to come together and work together as a team. We have great team chemistry this year.”
That showed Saturday as the Lady Cavs came together after never leading in the first set in which Centennial hitter Ayla Dew had more kills herself than L-P.
“It was maybe nerves because they’ve been in this position before and we haven’t,” Turczyn said of the Chargers, who have won four sectional titles in the last six years and placed third in state last season. “Whatever it was, we figured it out and came back.
“We just came together as a team and were like, ‘Just forget about that game.’ We didn’t play to our potential and it was still a close match. We knew we could do it. We just had to focus in and get the job done.”
The Lady Cavs got the job done early in the second set, taking the lead for good at 4-3 and extending their advantage to as many as nine at 19-10 and 20-11.
Centennial rallied within a point at 24-23, but Puetz slammed a kill into the back corner to end the set.
“We did everything well that (second) set,” Johnson said. “We figured out where their hitters hit, so we blocked them and shut them down. We found the weak spots in their defense and we just killed the ball.”
The third set was tight early as it was tied six times before L-P took the lead for good at 12-11 on a Centennial net violation.
The Lady Cavs then built some momentum on back-to-back blocks by Rachel Hunt and an ace by Gibson for a 15-11 lead.
L-P led by at least two points the rest of the way before Ellie Senica ended the match with a kill, sending the rowdy L-P student section storming onto the court to mob the team.
“It was indescribable,” Johnson said about her feelings the moment the last point was scored. “It was a surreal feeling. Everyone was full of excitement. Every emotion you could possibly have was pouring into your body.”
Puetz had a team-high nine kills to go along with 11 points and 11 digs, while Johnson and Gibson had seven kills each. Gibson also had 14 points and nine digs.
Katie Olson racked up 31 assists, nine points and eight digs. Turczyn led the defense with 13 digs.
Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.