NORMAL – The Sterling volleyball team had been waiting for it all season, so one more point wasn’t going to matter too much.
And when senior do-it-all leader Josi Borum smacked a kill off the fingertips of Althoff blocker Katie Wemhoener, she let out a scream, clenching her fists and holding them close to her torso.
Her younger sister Brook matched that fist-pumping motion as she dropped to her knees, sliding in next to Lexi Rodriguez, who had dropped to her knees and raised both arms toward the rafters at Redbird Arena. Grace Gould jumped for joy – literally – before she, Bree Borum and Kierra Collins joined Rodriguez and the other two Borums in a huddle on their knees on the big redbird painted at center court. Their teammates mobbed them a few seconds later as they sprinted from the bench.
After leading for all but one point in the first set, the Golden Warriors stormed back from a 15-13 deficit in the second set to win the Class 3A state championship on Saturday evening at Redbird Arena, beating Althoff 25-21 25-22.
“It was just kind of reality setting in, and I was super excited. I just had a feeling that we were going to do this, I knew we could do it, and just the reality of it being done was just amazing,” said Josi Borum said about the scream at midcourt, two points after she could be seen holding up an index finger and telling her teammates “One more! One more!”
The Borums and Rodriguez all shared a hug as tears and smiles and high-fives were shared all around for the Warriors – and the Musgrove Maniacs, many of whom made it down to Normal after the football team’s 10-7 win over Rockford Boylan earlier in the afternoon, were going wild as usual.
Sterling (41-1) got a lot of its nerves out early, turning a 2-1 deficit into an 11-5 lead in the first set, forcing an Althoff timeout. Brook Borum started the surge with a kill, then Grace Gould and Bree Borum smacked back-to-back kills to end it. A kill by Bree Borum, a block by Grace Gould, and a back-row kill by Brook Borum – off a set from Rodriguez – were followed by an Althoff hitting error, and the Warriors led 16-7.
“I think our setters knew where we needed to be, and at the beginning, we just adjusted to the block,” Brook Borum said. “If they were going far out, we were going to keep the set in and hit cross; if there was a seam, we were going to hit seam or line. I think it was just based on where the blockers were and the way we adjusted to it.”
“I think we were really aware of the court and where everyone on the court was, so placing the ball where it needed to go was easier,” Bree Borum added.
Althoff (37-5) battled back, as 5-foot-11 middle Karinna Gall started to find her groove. She smacked a couple of kills and opened things up for Grace Strieker and Lauren Borik, and suddenly it was 22-19 and Sterling called timeout.
Back-to-back kills by Gall followed a Josi Borum kill, and it was 23-21, forcing another Sterling timeout.
“Hats off to Sterling, they played an amazing match. They came out from the very beginning, they were putting pressure on us pretty early, and it took us a little bit to respond,” Althoff coach Troy Miner said. “But I think we did a great job of fighting back there, and we finally settled in and were able to get that first set to 25-21 after being down seven points, which says a lot about us being able to fight back like that.”
But Brook Borum made it set point with a kill, then Josi Borum tipped a kill after an Althoff timeout to close out the first set.
Althoff jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second set, then Sterling fought back to forge ties at 5-5 (on a Bree Borum tip-kill), 7-7 (another Bree Borum tip-kill), 9-9 (a Josi Borum kill) and 11-11 (a Brook Borum kill).
The Crusaders got four kills in a five-point stretch from Gall – the last two from the back row – for a 15-13 lead, and that’s when Sterling turned it on.
Back-to-back tip-kills by Brook and Bree Borum, then another Bree tip-kill and a Gretchen Gould smash made it 18-16 Warriors, then another Gretchen kill after an Althoff error made it 20-16. Sterling never trailed again, then pulled away from 21-20 and 23-21 leads to finish it off.
“It was an amazing feeling, knowing that we worked so hard for this, and going out in the best way possible,” Gretchen Gould said of seeing Josi Borum’s final kill hit the court.
While Sterling’s offense hummed along, it was the defense that gave Althoff fits. The Warriors dove, sprinted and leaped for 49 digs as a team, with seven players recording at least one.
“We were just trying to get to every ball that they hit, and play our hearts out and go for everything,” Rodriguez said. “We were playing like we didn’t want them to score, but then if they did, it was next-play mentality, and that’s what we did throughout the game. We just kept grinding throughout the whole entire game.”
“Sterling dug up so many balls that are usually first-hit kills for us,” Althoff’s Mary Wessel said. “Their defense just sent them back over for a point, and never let up. They took away a lot of points we usually get.”
Gall slammed 15 kills for Althoff, Strieker had six kills, and Wemhoener added three kills and 12 digs. Borik chipped in four kills, and Wessel dished 25 assists.
“I think we played really well tonight, and I think we came together as a team,” Gall said. “But I think Sterling just played lights-out; they have really good attackers and defenders, and they were probably our toughest match the whole season. We tried our best, but they just played better tonight.”
“Sterling is just a really good defensive and offensive team – and we are too – but they just put the power to us tonight,” Wemhoener added. “They’re a great team, and they had ups we weren’t expecting and kills we weren’t expecting so credit to them.”
Bree Borum had 12 kills, 13 assists and 11 digs for Sterling, while Josi & Brook Borum both finished with nine kills; Josi dished 15 assists and had six digs, and Brook added 10 digs. Rodriguez led the way with 15 digs and also set five assists, and Jaylynn Razo served three aces.
“We wanted it more than … anything, really,” Rodriguez said. “I think every single person on this team wanted to win a state title more than anything else, and we just did it.”
3A state championship
Sterling def. Belleville Althoff 25-21, 25-22
Star of the match: Bree Borum, Sterling, 12 kills, 13 assists, 11 digs
Key performers: Josi Borum, Sterling, 9 kills, 15 assists, 6 digs; Brook Borum, Sterling, 9 kills, 10 digs; Lexi Rodriguez, Sterling, 15 digs; Karinna Gall, Althoff, 15 kills