The final play of Saturday’s Class 1A Valmeyer Super-Sectional pretty encapsulated the entire match.
As was the case so many times through a historic season, St. Elmo setter Perry Manley set up Savannah Feezel perfectly and the Eagles’ all-time kills leader unloaded with a thunderous spike.
But, as was the case all-too-often for St. Elmo throughout a 25-15, 25-23 loss to the host Pirates, Valmeyer middle hitter Paige Whipple was there to deny the Eagles.
Whipple’s fifth stuff block of the day sent the Pirates (30-9) to their first-ever state tournament, denying St. Elmo a chance to pull off the same feat.
But it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
The Eagles (29-10) almost rallied from a late 20-14 deficit to force a winner-take-all third set. But in the end, the resilience that carried this Eagles team further in the postseason than any team in program history was trumped by Whipple’s defense, Andi Inman’s hitting and a raucous Valmeyer home crowd.
Whipple (12 blocks/five stuffs, nine kills) and Inman (11 kills, 14 digs) proved to be as formidable an all-around duo as advertised, and a home crowd that St. Elmo coach Elise Asher referred to as a “lions den” propelled Valmeyer to a hard-fought sweep.
“No shame in what the kids did and how they went out,” Asher said. “It’s typical of what these kids have done all year — they just keep battling and keep fighting. We just needed a couple more plays to get over the top.”
St. Elmo never found its rhythm in the first set, as the Pirates jumped out to a 10-4 lead and maintained at least a four-point advantage the rest of the way.
Inman led Valmeyer’s charge early on with five of her team’s first eight kills, and Whipple got going late, hammering down three kills to highlight a 7-1 run to close out a 10-point victory.
St. Elmo got off to another rough start in the second set, as a pair of hitting errors and a Whipple stuff block had the Eagles down 3-0. Valmeyer looked like it might coast to victory after an Eagles error put the Pirates up 13-6, but three quick Feezel kills got St. Elmo on track.
Feezel then appeared to cut Valmeyer’s lead to 13-11 with a block, but St. Elmo was whistled for a net violation on the play, sending the momentum back in the Pirates’ favor.
“That kind of took the wind out of our sails,” said Asher of the controversial call. “We were finally getting it together. We were rolling and had a good head of steam.
“I wasn’t standing at the net, so I don’t know who it was (the official) saw in the net. I asked the official who it was he said he saw in the net, and he didn’t know who it was, so it was an unfortunate turn of events.”
The play ignited a 7-3 Valmeyer run that had the host team in the driver’s seat. But St. Elmo refused to quit. A brief spat of Valmeyer errors helped the Eagles cut the Pirates’ lead to 21-18, setting up a tense, back-and-forth finish.
After exchanging three points apiece, a Whipple stuff block put Valmeyer on the brink, 24-21. But Manley responded with a clutch kill, and a Whipple hitting error following a miraculous dig by the Eagles’ back row had St. Elmo down just one, 24-23. But Whipple quickly made up for the error with a state-clinching block on the next volley.
The play set off a wild celebration and allowed Valmeyer coach Jenny Kohnz to breath a sigh off relief.
“I’ll be honest, I was nervous, because they had done the same thing against Lebanon (in the sectional final),” Kohnz said of St. Elmo’s comeback. “Lebanon beat them the first game and they came back and fought back and won. But you know what, (my team) didn’t give up. Even when we were up by seven points they were still hitting the floor and making sure every point counts.”
Asher was proud to see her team respond positively after the controversial net violation call.
“The kids got their feet back under them after that and rallied again,” Asher said. “They are really resilient — much more than I am, I think.”
Valmeyer managed to contain Feezel, holding her to eight kills after she piled up 50 kills in the Eagles previous four postseason matches. Outstanding serving set the tone, as the Pirates had just one error and managed to disrupt St. Elmo’s passing with aggressive serves.
“They were a good serving team,” Asher said. “They kind of kept us off balance on our serve receive and the two hitters — Whipple and Inman — they did a good job.”
Outside hitter Megan Maxey added six kills for the Eagles, and fellow senior Katie Stites had three kills. Feezel, Maxey, Stites, Manley, Whitney Lowe and Heather Seibert all played their final match for St. Elmo.
“I can’t really summarize what they mean to the program and to each other,” Asher said of her seniors. “It’s an emotional time. They are a good group and have left some pretty incredible footprints and raised the bar even higher.”
Freshman Gabi Moore will be the only returning starter from a team that won the program’s first sectional title and finished four wins shy of the school-record of 33 wins set by the 2003 Eagles.
“The ’03 team had fewer loss,” said Asher when asked if this was her best St. Elmo team, “but these guys are special. Today, I’d have to say, yeah, they’re the best team I’ve ever coached.
“I’m proud of the kids and what they accomplished. They fought til the end, and that’s all I can really ask for.”
Valmeyer def. St. Elmo
St. Elmo — Maxey (6 kills), Feezel (8 kills, 1 ace), Seibert (1 kill, 1 ace), Manley (2 kills), Stites (3 kills, 1 stuff block)