Two of the blue-blood volleyball
programs in Illinois are what stand in Sterling’s way on the path to a possible Class 3A state championship.
The Golden Warriors will first tangle with Joliet Catholic in a state tournament semifinal on Friday afternoon at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University. It begins at 4 p.m., and will be followed by
the second semifinal between Belleville Althoff (36-4) and
Chicago Latin (35-2).
Joliet Catholic (27-13) is making its 12th state tournament appearance – as is Althoff – and it will be the ninth for head coach Christine Scheibe. She has amassed a 563-174-10 record with the Angels, highlighted by state championships in 2003, 2008 and 2009. Joliet Catholic was also second in 2010, 2014 and 2015.
This year’s JCA team doesn’t have the gaudy record of some of its vintage teams, due in part to a variety of nagging injuries to 6-foot-2 sophomore outside hitter Emily Wilson, who missed significant time.
She managed to post 121 digs, 110 kills, 11 blocks, 11 aces and two assists in limited time, but she is unlikely to play against Sterling.
“They had an injury to one of their better players, and their record is reflective of that,” Sterling coach Dale Dykeman said. “They have a couple of middles that run really hard, they’re really strong on the outside pins, and they play great defense.”
Emily Holbrook, a 5-8 senior outside hitter, leads the team in digs (319) and kills (261). She has also chipped in 28 aces, 16 blocks and seven assists.
The main force in the middle is 6-2 junior Bella Ray, who has 247 kills and a team-high 98 blocks. Nobody else has more than 22 blocks.
Other prominent offensive options are 6-foot sophomore outside hitter Jillian Gray, who has 249 digs and 230 kills, and 5-9 right-side hitter Sophie Krzysciak, who has 267 digs and 161 kills. The libero is 5-7 senior Molly Hibner, who has 291 digs, while the setter is 5-9 sophomore Ryan Hinshaw, who has 748 assists and 195 digs.
“They’re pretty tall,” Sterling sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez said. “They have some big hitters and big blocks. They have a good variety of hitters and a good back row, so they’re just a well-put-together team.”
Rodriguez and sophomore outside hitter Brook Borum are teammates of the Angels’ Wilson in AAU volleyball. They are members of the Sports Performance 15 Elite squad based out of Aurora that won a national championship this past summer.
Sterling (39-1) and Joliet Catholic played a match earlier this season, at the Metea Valley/Oswego East Tournament. The Golden Warriors won 25-19, 19-25, 25-19 in a match that has Scheibe realizing her club has to be at the top of its game.
“We really need to limit our errors, because we made way too many unforced errors against them the first time,” Scheibe said. “I know that they have excellent players in every position, and we are going to have to bring our best game. We are going to have to be disciplined on defense, and put up a strong block to slow them down.”
The Golden Warriors have toyed with most of their opponents. Only four of them (Joliet Catholic, Forreston, Hinsdale Central and Naperville North) were able to force a third set.
The lone loss was a 28-26, 25-19 setback against a 4A team, St. Charles North, at the Plainfield Fall Classic back on Oct. 13.
“We took a good loss – that sounds silly, but we were a better team out of the back side of that loss,” Dykeman said. “We needed that feeling. We needed to learn from it, and we absolutely did.”
The toughest postseason test for Sterling was actually in its first game, as Dixon hung tough in a semifinal of the Dixon Regional before falling 25-21, 25-20. Much like the loss to St. Charles North, it was a learning experience.
“Dixon played us pretty tough,” Dykeman said, “and we weren’t quite ready for that. We realized, in a regional semifinal, that we needed to bring our best game, and we really have been playing our best volleyball since then. We’ve been under 10 unforced errors in matches. If we can stay there, that puts a lot of pressure on any team’s front-line and back-line defense, and really affects the offense that they run.”
Then there is the matter of stepping onto the state’s biggest volleyball stage in Redbird Arena. It is a situation no Sterling volleyball team has been in before, but Dykeman is confident his team can handle it.
He pointed to pressure-packed games against Rock Falls this season, performing at peak efficiency before a full house in a supersectional win against Morton, and high-profile AAU tournament games some of his players compete in. He looks to two seniors to guide the team through rough spots.
“You’ve really seen Josi Borum and Gretchen Gould stabilize the team,” Dykeman said. “We’ve played in front of some big crowds – I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a bigger crowd in the [Musgrove] fieldhouse [against Morton], and they used that for positive energy. They could have come out tight and hit a couple balls off the back wall and some really silly things, but we didn’t. I think we’ll be fine in that aspect.”
3A state semifinal
Sterling (39-1) vs. Joliet Catholic (27-13)
What: Class 3A state tournament semifinal
When: 4 p.m. Friday
Where: Redbird Arena, Normal
At stake: Berth in the 3A championship against either Belleville Althoff (36-4) or Chicago Latin (35-2), 5:30 p.m. Saturday