---- — NORMAL – They don’t get the steak dinner they wanted, but Stew-Stras head coach Ronda Schlechte said her team will find another way to celebrate its second-place finish at the IHSA Class 1A state tournament.
“If we won state, we were going to have steak dinners,” Schlechte said. “I’m not sure what number two was. That would’ve been nice.”
The Comets’ second-place finish is the program’s best since winning the championship in 1986, years before any of the current players were born.
Keith Country Day (39-3) clinched its second consecutive state title by beating the Comets, 25-18 and 25-17, Saturday at Redbird Arena in Normal, but Stew-Stras senior Brittani Tabbert knows her team made history.
“We made big, big history today,” Tabbert said. “I’m not upset with anything because we made it this far and it’s the best senior gift you could ask for.”
The Comets (28-13) played from behind for most of the game, only taking the lead, 11-10, in the second set and holding onto it until the Cougars tied it 12-12 three points later.
Stew-Stras scored seven straight points, after trailing 10-5 in the second set, to take the lead and extend it to 12-10, before the Cougars six unanswered to regain control of the game.
“It was a glimpse of hope,” said Kendall Knop, who had a team-high eight kills. “We let it slip out of our hands. It’s not that we fell apart. They’re just a really good team.”
However, Keith Country Day had nobody to blame but itself during the Stew-Stras rally. The Cougars botched five of the seven points on attacking errors, while Tabbert and Knop each had a kill during the streak.
Keith Country Day head coach Lynn Cesario said she talked to her team about regrouping from the Stew-Stras rally because her players were allowing the Comets to come back.
Adeja Lambert started the comeback with two kills for the Cougars, before Stew-Stras was called for attacking errors on the next three points. The Cougars controlled the game with a 16-12 lead and finished off the Comets, winning the second set 25-17.
“If we worked together, there was nothing that could outshine us,” said Lambert, who had a game-high 11 kills. “We’re just a great team.”
The 6-foot-2 Lambert was a player Schlechte said her team prepared for, pulling the right side of the defense to the middle part of the court where Lambert was hitting.
But Lambert’s attacks came too quickly at times, Schlechte said, and the Comets defense couldn’t get to the ball, especially when blockers didn’t deflect the hits.
“I told Baylee (Quast), ‘Jump higher,’ and she laughed,” Schlechte said. “They came so fast at us that we weren’t able to react as fast to them.”
Schlechte said her blockers did a good job battling against the Cougars’ attack, but said her team’s offense struggled dealing with the defensive height.
Knop’s eight kills was two more than Tabbert’s six; however, Tabbert struggled with seven hitting errors in the game.
“I was just in a slump,” Tabbert said. “I just had to work hard to get through it and I knew I had my team to back me up.”
The senior cleaned things up later in the game, but it was too late for the Comets to battled back from a 24-16 hole in the decisive second set. Tabbert accounted for the last two Stew-Stras points in the set.
Keith Country Day went on a 9-2 run in the middle of the first set, which was tied 15-14 after the Comets scored three unanswered points.
“There’s not a lot you can say when you’re playing such a good team,” Schlechte said. “You can’t be disappointed with the loss.”
The players matched Schlechte’s attitude towards the loss after the game, as she said they should because they accomplished a lot this season.
The Comets returned to the state final four for the first time since 1995, placed second for the third time in school history and finished better than any Stew-Stras team since 1986’s undefeated state championship team.
“The girls have worked so hard and I feel that they believed they deserved this,” Schlechte said. “Second isn’t what we wanted, but we’ll take it.”
The senior class, which graduates five players, led the charge for the Comets’ 28-13, second-place season and Schlechte said they exceeded expecations.
“I knew we had the potential,” Schlechte said. “As far as getting to the championship game, I’m not sure I knew we could get that far. These girls did it.”
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stew-Stras		18 17
Keith Country Day	25 25
Stew-Stras: Schlechte (3 kills, 7 assists, 8 digs, 1 block), Stremming (1 block), Tabbert (6 kills, 7 digs, 1 block), Knop (8 kills, 1 assist, 4 digs), Kaufman (1 kill, 1 ace, 1 dig, 2 blocks), Quast (9 assists, 2 digs, 1 block), Locke (1 assist, 8 digs)
Keith Country Day: Coleman (4 kills, 3 digs, 3 blocks), Morgan (2 kills, 20 assists, 9 digs, 5 blocks), McGary (6 kills, 1 assist, 1 ace, 5 digs), Luther (2 kills, 2 blocks), Nicolosi (3 kills, 1 dig, 2 blocks), Lambert (11 kills, 2 aces, 6 digs, 1 block), Nunez (5 assists, 8 digs), Wehrstein (6 digs)