This had to be the team, had to be the year Stew-Stras got this far; at least that's what head coach Ronda Schlechte said last year in the aftermath of a season-ending sectional loss to Tri-County.
She said it again Thursday night, only this time with her team passing around an Arcola Sectional championship plaque in the background after beating Arthur-Lovington to win the title.
“I knew what the potential was,” Schlechte said. “I knew we had so much skill this year and I felt like the past few years we hadn't really used that. You get frustrated. I'm not a patient person.”
A core group of five seniors were among those returning and junior Kendall Knop, who grabbed momentum for the Comets with three consecutive kills in the middle of the 25-18 first-set win.
The junior helped build a slim 14-12 lead into an 18-12 lead with three of her 10 kills, after Arthur-Lovington fooled Knop and the Comets' defense on back-to-back tips past the Stew-Stras block.
The Lancers' tips were working, so the Comets adjusted the defense and brought Knop closer to the net, behind blockers to defend against it.
“We pulled our defense up further because they kept tipping around our block,” Knop said.
The Comets continued to control the set after scoring six straight points and score the last three points with the score 22-18 to go into the second set with the lead.
Arthur-Lovington kept the game close again in the second set, but Stew-Stras' power separated them from the Lancers, scoring eight unanswered points when the score was 8-7.
“We came in really confident,” Knop said. “We were at our best and hard to handle.”
Stew-Stras built the lead to 24-14 and Schlechte put senior Lindsay Burton into the game. Burton hadn't played competitively since September, but lightly practiced with the team this week.
Senior Baylee Quast routinely set Burton the ball on five consecutive points, trying to give Burton the chance to score the final point that advanced the Comets to Saturday's Super-Sectional.
Arthur-Lovington benefited, as they scored on all five points, before Schlechte decided it was time to put the Lancers away for good.
Initially, she said she put Burton into the game because she could tell the Lancers were beaten already.
“We had those points we could work with and we used them,” Schlechte said. “I was determined.”
Schlechte called off the Burton play and sets starting going to Brittani Tabbert, who had nine kills in the match. Tabbert's last smash bounced off of Arthur-Lovington blockers and out of bounds in front of the Comets' bench, for the championship-clinching point and 25-19 win.
“I wanted this win,” Tabbert said. “It feels pretty awesome. We knew they were going to be a fight, so we brought it on. We were ready for that win.”
The win was sweet for Schlechte, too, who stood back and watched her players celebrate after the last point that puts them one win away from the Class 1AState Tournament.
“We planned,” Schlechte said. “That's been the whole season's goal and we're here. You don't want to move because you just want to take it all in. I wanted to be able to remember this day.”
Stew-Stras is one win away from trying to win its second title in school history, the first of which came in 1986, but the Comets will have to beat Libery at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Nokomis Super-Sectional.
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or email@example.com.
Stew-Stras 25 25
Arthur-Lovington 18 19
Stew-Stras: Schlechte (7 kills, 12 assists, 7 digs), Quast (1 kill, 13 assists, 7 digs, 1 block), Knop (1 ace, 10 kills, 9 digs), Tabbert (1 ace, 9 kills, 3 assists, 5 digs, 1 block), Stremming (1 block), Locke (1 kill, 8 digs), Kaufman (1 kill)