DIXON – Just when the Sauk Valley Skyhawks needed a spark, freshman Kalli Scheppers came through in the nick of time.
The outside hitter smoked seven kills in a 13-point span midway through the third set of the Skyhawks' Region IV Tournament play-in game against Black Hawk on Wednesday evening to help turn the tide in Sauk's 25-21, 20-25 25-22, 25-23 victory.
"It was all adrenaline," said Scheppers, who had a match-high 20 kills to go with 11 digs and a pair of stuff blocks. "We were getting good passes from our back row, and I just wanted to put a few kills down so their efforts weren't wasted. That shifted things in our favor, and we all got super-excited to finish strong."
The Skyhawks (26-13) held off a late Black Hawk charge to win the first set, then the Braves (13-25) jumped out quickly in the second set before holding off Sauk to even the match at 1 set apiece.
Black Hawk maintained that momentum into the third set, building a 15-9 lead after scoring seven of nine points to seemingly take control of the match.
But after a Skyhawk timeout, Kayla Kurz spiked a kill for a sideout, then setter Karly Koch (44 assists, 1 block, 5 points) went to the game plan outlined by coach Jay Howell during the break.
"He said we had to play with the same mentality and energy that Black Hawk had," Koch explained, "so I told Kalli that I was going to set her right away and get her going. Coach said if they couldn't shut her down, to keep going to her until they could stop her."
Scheppers' final kill in that stretch put the Skyhawks ahead 20-18, and Jessica Bonnell (11 kills, 4 blocks, 11 points) and Kurz had kills to close out the set after Black Hawk tied the score at 22-all.
Sauk kept rolling to start the fourth set, racing out to a 10-3 lead before the Braves battled back. Black Hawk actually took leads of 17-16 and 18-17, but another Scheppers kill tied the score at 18-all, then Ali Massey's ace, a combo block from Scheppers and Randi Wilkin (6 kills, 4 blocks) and Scheppers solo block gave the Skyhawks enough of a cushion to close out the match.
While the Black Hawk block had been giving Sauk's hitter fits, Scheppers' impressive run seemed to loosen the Skyhawks up. While the block continued to play a role the rest of the way – Black Hawk had 12 blocks in the match, while Sauk stuffed 10 – the Skyhawk hitters didn't seem as discouraged by it through the final set.
Part of the reason for that was an adjustment made by back-row stalwarts Nicole Shaffer (24 digs, 7 points) and Mariah Long (17 digs, 10 points).
"Our job back there is to get to the ball, no matter what," Long said. "Coach calls us the 'Human Spatula' in the back row, and we just want to keep everything in play and not let anything hit the court."
As frustrated as Sauk's hitters were with their spikes getting blocked and dug up by the Braves, the Skyhawks' defense was just as solid.
"We always seem to be a little shaky in that second game," libero Nicole Shaffer said, "but we picked it up after Kalli's kills got us going. We knew we had to be on our toes against Black Hawk, because they block the ball well and so do we."
The Skyhawks advance to the Region IV semifinals Saturday at College of Lake County, where they will take on Highland at noon. The winner of that match will play for the regional title at 4 p.m., likely against powerhouse Kishwaukee.
Rayven Morrow led Black Hawk with nine kills and 4 blocks, while Emily West had eight kills and 2 blocks. Kelley Wallace had six kills, 4 blocks and five points, and Brittany Scott finished with 21 assists, 8 points, 3 kills and 2 blocks. Morrison grad Brooke Elliott served for a team-high nine points, and Riverdale alum Lauren Ickes had four kills and a block.
"Momentum changes all the time in volleyball, and they were able to keep it at key times," Black Hawk coach Mary Davis said. "We knew we'd have to get blocks on their hitters to stay in the match, but we went through little funks where we couldn't get a sideout."
The Braves were playing with somewhat heavy hearts, as Davis was recently diagnosed with stage-4 bone cancer. Upon their pregame introduction, each Sauk player presented Davis with a flower and embraced her, bringing tears to Davis' eyes.
Region IV Tournament play-in match
Sauk Valley def. Black Hawk 25-21, 20-25, 25-22, 25-23
Star of the match: Kalli Scheppers, Sauk, 20 kills, 11 digs, 2 blocks
Key performers: Jessica Bonnell, Sauk, 11 kills, 4 blocks, 11 points; Karly Koch, Sauk, 44 assists, 2 blocks, 5 points; Nicole Shaffer, Sauk, 24 digs; Rayven Morrow, Black Hawk, 9 kills, 4 blocks; Emily West, Black Hawk, 8 kills, 2 blocks
Up next: Region IV Tournament semifinal, Sauk Valley vs. Highland, noon Saturday at College of Lake County