MENDOTA – Even as they were celebrating with their friends and families. Even as they posed for pictures with the IHSA sectional championship plaque clutched tightly in their hands, it still didn't feel real to the Rock Falls Rockets.
After waiting for so long to take that next step, the Rockets volleyball team emphatically leaped over the hurdle in front of them, dominating the Class 3A Mendota Sectional championship match against Dunlap on Thursday in a 25-11, 25-18 victory.
"It's almost disbelief," longtime coach Sheila Mammosser said. "For so long, it's been what if, what if, what if. Well, now we're one win away from what if, and I couldn't be more happy or proud of this team."
The win moves Rock Falls (29-10) into the 3A Galesburg Supersectional at 6 p.m. Saturday to face Champaign Centennial, a 25-10, 25-16 winner over Metamora in the Normal U-High Sectional final.
The Rockets' win wasn't in much doubt from the get-go. A pair of kills by Morgan Mammosser, a kill from Linsey Brown and a pair of aces by Bailey O'Brien put Rock Falls up 8-1 in the opening set, and two more Brown kills and three spikes by Jordan Giddings made it 14-2.
"I looked up at the scoreboard and couldn't believe we were up by that much," Giddings said. "It just felt unreal."
The teams traded hitting and serving errors for a few points, then Cierra Wilder put down the first of her five kills in the match for a 17-6 lead. The freshman O'Brien sandwiched a pair of kills around an Addesyn Nailor ace for a 20-7 lead, then O'Brien pounded two more kills for a 22-10 margin. After a Giddings kill made it 23-11, O'Brien reeled off back-to-back aces to close out the first set.
"She's definitely the best freshman I've ever seen in my life," Morgan Mammosser said of O'Brien. "She's not afraid to take a swing, and that's paid off these last two games."
With O'Brien (7 kills, 10 points, 4 aces), Morgan Mammosser (3 kills, 9 assists, 8 points, 5 digs) and Linsey Brown (3 kills, 6 digs) making noise on the outside, setters Mammosser and Nailor (15 assists, 5 digs) switched things up in the second set. The ball started going to middle hitters Giddings (8 kills, 2 blocks) and Wilder (5 kills, 1 block), and Dunlap couldn't adjust.
"Our passing wasn't our best today – except for Bree [Celletti] – but that actually allowed me and Addy to set it to the outside early on," Morgan Mammosser explained. "But our defense picked up when it needed to, and then we started to feed the middle and put the match away."
Dunlap (19-14) bounced back to start the second set, taking the lead early on and holding it until 9-8. But then the Rockets' middles took over, as Giddings and Wilder ripped a couple of kills and stuffed a couple of blocks to get the Eagles' hitters on their heels.
"I was just yelling at them to stay focused and gain their composure," coach Mammosser said. "We let up a little bit, and you can't do that against teams like Dunlap and let them take the momentum away from you."
It was Rock Falls' always-solid defense that stepped in and stepped up. Once the back row got back into rhythm with its digs and passes, Rock Falls had plenty left in the tank to take over. With the match tied 10-10, the Rockets scored 12 of the next 15 points, then finished it out with kills by Wilder and Giddings.
"They're a team that doesn't make errors, and we knew coming in that we'd have to play close to a flawless match to beat them," Dunlap coach Jen Bartlett said. "They're a smart team, and their pure athleticism allows them to play quicker and react faster as the match goes on. They're very driven, have a burning desire to win, and they played very well tonight."
As Giddings' final spike went out of bounds off a Dunlap blocker, the Rockets bench and rowdy student section leapt into the air. As the sectional championship plaque was handed to captains Giddings, Brown, Nailor and Morgan Mammosser, the Rowdies stormed the court and enveloped the Rock Falls players and coaches in a wildly celebrating mass of humanity.
"It felt so good," O'Brien said, "a whole bunch of stress off my shoulders."
"It doesn't seem real; my mind is blown right now," Morgan Mammosser added. "This is so amazing, so exciting, just so much better than I ever imagined … and I've imagined this a lot. I just have to keep telling myself, 'This is real.' "
"There are only eight teams left in 3A … and we're one of them," Giddings chimed in. "I just can't believe it."
Class 3A Mendota Sectional final
Rock Falls def. Dunlap 25-11, 25-18
Star of the match: Bailey O'Brien, RF, 7 kills, 10 points, 4 aces
Key performers: Jordan Giddings, RF, 8 kills, 2 blocks, 4 points, 1 ace; Cierra Wilder, RF, 5 kills, 1 block; Morgan Mammosser, RF, 9 assists, 8 points, 5 digs, 3 kills; Brooke Langan, Dunlap, 5 kills; Erika Barber, Dunlap, 4 kills, 3 points, 1 ace; Jaeden Barlow, Dunlap, 1 kill, 3 blocks
Up next: Class 3A Galesburg Supersectional, Rock Falls vs. Champaign Centennial, 6 p.m. Saturday