NORMAL — Knocked down but never out, defending state champion Benet is still standing.
Down a game and 15-10 in the second to Libertyville, the Redwings answered the bell to pull out a 20-25, 25-21, 25-13 win in Friday’s Class 4A semifinal at Redbird Arena.
“Anytime you come down here you gotta expect to go three games, and that’s what we want. We want to turn it into a slugfest,” Benet coach Brad Baker said. “If we’re going to be here for an hour and a half, that’s fine with us. They pushed us and we were able to fight back and pull it out.”
Benet (39-2) will play for its second straight state championship at 8:55 p.m. today against New Trier, which earlier Friday knocked off Mother McAuley. A win and Benet would become the first repeat champion in the state’s largest class since McAuley in 1994-95.
Few expected the Redwings to be in this position before the year. Benet senior setter Hannah Kaminsky spoke like someone playing with a chip on her shoulder.
“We have a lot of fight — we’re doing this for each other,” said Kaminsky, whose 32 assists pushed her over 1,000 for the season. “We want to prove ourselves. We weren’t even ranked that high at the start of the season and now we’re playing for a state championship. We want to go out on top tomorrow.”
On the heels of New Trier’s upset of Mother McAuley, Libertyville was poised to pull another surprise. The Wildcats took advantage of 11 Benet errors in Game 1 they never trailed in. Libertyville led by 21-14 at one point, and a dump shot by Michigan-bound setter Cindy Zhou gave her team game point.
A pair of Jordan Bauer kills on Benet overpasses had the Wildcats ahead 15-10, 10 points from their first win at state. Libertyville took fourth in 2007.
“We came out strong, we were passing the ball well and moving it around and our hitters were aggressive,” Wildcats coach Greg Loika said. “We really dictated tempo all the way into Game 2.”
Benet hadn’t lost a game since Oct. 13 against Joliet Catholic at Autumnfest and had dropped six games all year coming in. Clearly the unfamiliar position didn’t faze the Redwings in volleyball’s biggest setting.
At 15-10 in the second Cara Mattaliano put down a kill to give Benet back serve, and the Redwings proceeded to roll off 8 more points in a row with Brittany Pavich at the line. A kill by Abby Willett on a slide play capped off a lengthy rally, giving Benet its first lead of the match at 16-15.
The Redwings, perhaps a step slow defensively early on, called on its hallmark scrap to get out of the hole. Mattaliano, a senior who was at state last year but didn’t play, felt her team’s pace pick up.
“It fook us a while to get into rhythm,” said Mattaliano, who had 12 kills and 18 digs. “We finally got to the point where we just weren’t going to let any balls drop. Our will to win, it pushed us forward.”
“I think our communication picked up too,” added Benet libero Sheila Doyle.
A Nicki Barnes kill and Libertyville double contact violation capped off the 9-0 run. Pavich’s kill on another slide, one of her 11 kills for the match, gave Benet game point.
Much like Benet in Game 1, Libertyville was its worst enemy to start the third game. The Wildcats gave Benet 7 of its first 11 points off unforced errors, 3 coming on net serves. The third net serve made it 11-7, and Pavich followed with an ace to start a 7-0 service run.
“Volleyball’s definitely a game of momentum,” Libertyville’s Kristen Webb said. “It was definitely frustrating when we couldn’t finish off Game 2.”
“When Benet was able to dictate tempo they were able to go on some long service runs,” Loika added, “and they felt like ages.”
A clever dump shot by Kaminsky made it 18-7. She earlier had a block and put down a kill off a Libertyville overpass, looking like she had an extra spring in her step.
“It was definitely adrenaline,” Kaminsky said. “I kind of noticed that they were pushing back. I trust my hitters and I don’t usually dump that much. But if it’s open I’m gonna go for it.”
Barnes and Rachael Fara each had 6 kills for Benet. Zhou had 7 kills and 21 assists, Rhiannon Prentiss 7 kills and Julia Smagacz 6 for Libertyville.
“I’m really proud of the girls for hanging in there against a really good Benet team,” Loika said. “Benet just started playing better, started passing better and we made mistakes.”