MINONK — As this season went along and as the wins started to pile up, Fieldcrest volleyball coach Cathy Sanders noticed something about her team’s defeats and its one tie.
“If you look at our losses, we have lost against good teams and good programs,” Sanders said. “We’ve always kind of had that in the back of our mind.”
This season, two of Fieldcrest’s four defeats are to Heart of Illinois Conference rival and defending Class 2A state champion Deer Creek-Mackinaw, while another is to Danville Schlarman, which fell in last Saturday’s 1A super-sectional.
The fourth loss is to Dakota, which finished second in 2A last season to Dee-Mack and fell 26-24 in the third set in the sectional semifinal to Immaculate Conception, which also qualified for the 2A state tournament.
And the Lady Knights lone tie this season was to Chicago Morgan Park, which fell in last Saturday’s 2A super-sectional to Immaculate Conception.
“We’ve learned from those losses and it showed us, ‘Well, we are good enough because if we can compete with them and they’re still alive …’” Sanders said. “Knowing our girls and what we have on our side of the court and the way they fight, we felt that we could have a good postseason.”
Fieldcrest’s good losses and its tie showed the Lady Knights weeks ago they were good enough to advance to state.
Now, after Fieldcrest navigated the postseason, the Lady Knights will play at the IHSA Class 2A state tournament, which will be held this weekend at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal.
“This run has been really exciting,” junior middle hitter Tessa Holland said. “We’ve worked really hard all year for it and we’re glad that it’s paying off. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
Fieldcrest (33-4-1) will play in the second 2A state semifinal at 1:30 p.m. Friday against Edwards County (40-0), which is located in Albion and is making its second straight appearance at state and fifth overall under 19-year coach Linda Oxby.
The winner will face the winner of Dee-Mack (36-1) and Immaculate Conception (34-6) Saturday for the 2A state title.
“We made it to state last year but got beat by Dakota in the semifinals and then we lost to Riverdale (in the third-place match),” said Oxby, who also coached Coal City to the state tournament twice in the early 1980s. “I really felt like our inexperience got us. We got up there and basically fell apart, but we do have a lot of girls back from last year so to that should be a plus for us.”
The Lions are led by 6-foot senior outside hitter Whitney Beck, who signed on Wednesday to play volleyball at Butler University.
So far this season, Beck has 362 kills — or 4.36 per set — as well as 272 digs, 46 aces and 42 blocks.
Six-foot junior outside hitter Kaeli James also is a threat as she has 275 kills, while 5-11 senior middle hitter Riley Messman has 171 kills and 144 blocks.
“They have two strong outside hitters, but they run a high-set offense, so it’s just watching the ball, being patient and being ready when it comes to you,” Sanders said. “Seeing that they were there last year and that they finished fourth, I’m sure that motivates them to finish better than last year.”
Edwards County players are not only playing for themselves but also Oxby, who is retiring from coaching after this weekend because she has Stage IV breast cancer.
“It is special for me,” Oxby said of the weekend. “The girls have really rallied behind me. They have said several times that they want to do this for me. I would rather they do it for themselves and for the team, but they are just a great bunch of girls.”
While Edwards County — located four hours from Normal — has played in the state tournament at Redbird Arena, it will be the first experience for Fieldcrest, which had never won a sectional before this season.
It still doesn’t diminish the Lady Knights’ expectation for the weekend.
“I know we can do it,” said Sanders, whose team will not spend the weekend in Normal and instead commute the 30 miles. “We’ve made it this far, and it’s taken hard work and dedication to get here. We’re going to do our best to bring home that first-place trophy for sure.”
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.