STERLING – Two seasons ago, the Sterling Golden Warriors shared the NIB-12 West volleyball title with LaSalle-Peru. Thursday night at Musgrove Fieldhouse, they clinched at least a share of the conference crown for the second time in 3 years.
Jenn Rahn had 10 kills and four blocks, Krista Loos and Peyton Cater played strong all-around matches, and the Warriors downed rival Dixon 25-20, 25-13 to maintain their two-game lead over LaSalle-Peru in the NIB-12 West standings with two matches to play.
L-P moved to 6-2 in conference play Thursday with a 25-16, 25-18 win over Geneseo, knocking the Maple Leafs down to 5-3. Both Cavalier losses have come to Sterling.
"It feels good to get to this point," senior setter Sydney McCaslin (8 assists, 3 digs) said, "but we don't want to share. We've done that before, but not this year. All  of us seniors, we want to go out on top."
Sterling (31-2, 8-0) also moved within one win of the single-season record, set in 2010's regional title year. Road wins against Streator and Geneseo next week to close out conference play would net Sterling both the wins record and the outright conference championship.
"Our first step at the end of the year is the conference title," senior hitter Rahn said, "and we'll go from there. It's important for us to make the most of our final year."
The Warriors took control early on Thursday. Rahn ripped back-to-back kills, then stuffed back-to-back blocks to give Sterling an 11-2 lead in the opening set, before the teams went back-and-forth for several points. Kills by Loos (6 kills, 3 blocks, 2 aces, 5 digs) and Caitlin Liston, then an ace serve from Loos put the Warriors ahead 22-13.
That's when the Duchesses ( 7-17, 1-6) got going. A serve out of bounds gave Dixon a sideout, then Amy Rotella (7 points, 3 aces, 5 kills, 4 digs) served five straight points – three on aces, two on Sterling attack errors – to pull the Duchesses to within 22-19 and force a Warriors timeout.
"We all really wanted to win this match, but they were pumped up too, and we had to match that," Rotella said. "We want to play at a higher level, and we tried hard to get there, but things just didn't go our way in the end."
"We knew they'd keep coming at us," Rahn said of the Duchesses, "and they've definitely gotten a lot better as the season has gone on. We knew what to expect from them tonight, and we answered the bell."
After the timeout, Sterling got a kill from Cater (11 points, 3 aces, 4 kills, 7 digs), then a kill from Audrey Maxson to answer the last of Caitlin Rozek's three kills to close out the first set.
Two early kills and a block by Rahn put the Warriors ahead 5-1, then a block by Kiarra Harris and another ace from Loos bumped the margin to 10-3. Back-to-back Rahn kills and a Cater ace made it 17-6, and eventually the Sterling finished off the win with a kill by senior defensive specialist Cassidy Gillihan.
"We're so comfortable out there, and Darien [Bardoner] and I have a lot of faith in every one of our hitters," McCaslin said. "We have three strong hitters in the front row at all times, and it's so hard to block us as a defense because of that. When teams make runs at us, we have confidence that we'll turn it around and get the momentum back."
The Warriors had 24 kills to Dixon's 12, seven blocks to Dixon's four, and six aces to Dixon's three.
Kari Wolfe paced the Duchesses with 10 digs, while Rachel Gascoigne dished 10 assists and Lexi Duncan added two kills and a block. Autumn Day and Maggie Provo each chipped in a kill and a block.
"Our goal tonight was to come in here and fight for every point," Dixon coach Kelsey Polte said. "I felt we really did that, focused on our game and didn't worry about how good Sterling's hitters were, especially early on. That just shows how much work we've put in not only physically, but mentally too, and that's exactly what we want to see heading into the postseason."
Sterling def. Dixon 25-20, 25-13
Star of the match: Jenn Rahn, Sterling, 10 kills, 4 blocks
Key performers: Krista Loos, Sterling, 6 kills, 2 blocks, 5 digs, 2 aces; Peyton Cater, Sterling, 11 points, 3 aces, 7 digs, 4 kills; Amy Rotella, Dixon, 7 points, 3 aces, 5 kills, 4 digs
Up next: Geneseo at Dixon & Sterling at Streator, both 6 p.m. Tuesday