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La Salle-Peru junior Cierra Johnson hits the ball past a pair of Chicago Payton defenders Friday during the Lady Cavaliers’ 25-18, 25-17 victory in a Class 3A state semifinal at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal. NewsTribune photo/Chris Yucus
NORMAL — When the volleyball season started back in August, La Salle-Peru senior Katie Olson couldn’t imagine the Lady Cavaliers playing for a state championship.
But that’s exactly what Olson and the Lady Cavs will do today after beating Chicago Payton 25-18, 25-17 on Friday afternoon in a Class 3A state semifinal at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena.
“I feel like it’s a great accomplishment because our school hasn’t done it before,” Olson said. “It’s something at the beginning of the season if you told any of us we were going to end up in the final it would be a joke, like ‘Oh, probably not.’
“But when the postseason started, something happened where we were all just clicking. We just kept going and everyone is rising to the occasion.”
After quickly shaking off any jitters, the Lady Cavs (35-3) took control early in the first set and never let up to earn a berth in the state championship match at 5:30 p.m. today against Wheaton St. Francis.
The Spartans (38-3) beat Breese Central 25-20, 25-10 in Friday’s second semifinal.
“I’m very proud of the way this team played tonight,” L-P coach Mark Haberkorn said. “It was a great team effort. Our defense, I thought, was outstanding. We served aggressively tonight. Our hitters, every night it’s somebody different.
“We seem to find the player that has the best mismatches or we find players who have the hot hand. Tonight it was Rachel (Hunt) and Cierra (Johnson). It starts with the passes, and we had some great sets by Katie Olson.”
The Lady Cavs had a hitting error on the first volley of the match and were whistled for a lift to fall behind 3-2, but quickly overcame any nerves.
“Once we got accustomed to the arena, we just fell into place and did what we always do and just worked together,” Hunt said.
L-P took the lead for good in the first set at 8-7 on a kill by Taylor Gibson, which gave the serve to L-P senior Abby Turczyn.
The senior libero rattled off a five-point service run that included an ace and a kill each by Hunt and Gibson for a 13-8 Lady Cavalier lead.
The Lady Cavs never led by less than two points again and closed out the first set on a service error by the Grizzlies.
Hunt had five of her match-high seven kills in the first set.
“It’s very hard to stop,” Payton coach Joel Anderson said about L-P’s various offensive weapons. “Their setter is very good. She moves the ball very quickly. Honestly, our Achilles heel is we don’t have huge middles, so every time she found that they scored. That’s been our problem all year. We have to serve aggressively to keep people out of sytem, and we did not serve aggressively today, but they’re really good.”
L-P served aggressively to start the second set.
Olson had consecutive aces to spark a 5-0 run, which included a kill by Hunt and back-to-back kills by Johnson.
“We had a game plan to serve at No. 17 (Payton’s top hitter Olivia Rozmus) and their libero (Lena Mickelson) to really keep them off,” Olson said. “Then I realized they were all moving back, so you throw in a short serve just to mess everything up. It seemed to get them off, so I just kept alternating.”
L-P extended its lead to 8-1 before the Grizzlies (27-12) rallied within a point at 8-7, but the Lady Cavs never relinquished the lead.
The Lady Cavs ended the match on a tip by Shana Puetz.
“We’ve been a team that has shown a lot of poise and a lot of composure all year,” Haberkorn said. “You watch out there and they just don’t seem to get rattled. They fight all the time, they never give up and we have great team chemistry, and I think that showed on the court.”
Along with Hunt’s seven kills, Gibson put down six and Puetz and Ellie Senica had four each.
Olson had a match-best 26 assists, while Puetz had a match-best 11 digs.
Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.
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