Effingham Daily News
The gravity of the moment wasn't lost on Stew-Stras junior Kendall Knop.
Moments after the Comets punched their ticket to their first state tournament since 1995-96 with a 25-20, 24-26, 25-18 win over Liberty, Knop knew what it meant.
"It just feels really good, I feel like we're part of history and that like really amazes me," she said.
The dramatic three-set victory was enough to make Stew-Stras (27-12) the Class 1A Nokomis Super-Sectional champions Saturday.
Knop's coach Ronda Schlechte was also reveling in the moment post-game.
"It's really good, this never gets old, it never gets old," she said.
Stew-Stras advances to the Class 1A state tournament Friday, facing off with New Athens at 10:30 a.m. at Illinois State's Redbird Arena in Normal. Keith Country Day and Scotia West Prairie play in the other semifinal at 9 a.m.
It took a concerted effort throughout, beginning with a tight first set. Stew-Stras struggled with some hitting errors but stayed consistently within three points.
Down 19-16 after a Madelyn Hyer kill for Liberty, the Comets took over. Kills by Baylee Quast and Knop got them close, and Clara Kaufman put them up with two straight aces.
The Eagles would get a point on an error, but a kill by Becca Schlechte ended the set for Stew-Stras with a 25-20 win. Schlechte's play was part of a large team effort for Stew-Stras.
"The girls can place the ball really well, so there's a lot we can do with that," Ronda Schlechte said. "Hitting hard is our main goal, because the girls are able to put it down."
Liberty jumped out again early in the second again with Hyer taking over for a 13-8 lead. Stew-Stras came back to take the lead on a Schlechte ace at 18-17, but immediately gave the lead back.
The Comets staved off a 24-22 deficit with a Brittani Tabbert kill and a hitting error, but Liberty took the set with a block to end it at 26-24.
The blocking was an advantage for Stew-Stras and not for Liberty the majority of the night, thanks to the schematic differences between the teams.
Stew-Stras routinely double blocked the bigger Liberty hitters, while the Eagles generally only put one blocker on the Comets' hitters, allowing Knop to rack up 18 kills and Tabbert to notch 11.
"It's just good with one block, I can do a lot with one blocker," Knop said. "We've always been big strong hitters. The setters did a really good job putting it where I needed it. They were pretty perfect tonight."
Stew-Stras jumped out to the lead in the third, taking a 14-8 lead and forcing a Liberty timeout. The Eagles responded with five straight points and forced Schlechte into a timeout of her own.
It worked, as Stew-Stras immediately jumped out to a four-point lead and didn't look back. Schlechte, Knop and Kaufman were big down the stretch, and a hitting error by Liberty ended the ga,e.
"I said calm down, not to panic," Ronda Schlechte said. "We tend to do that when we get under pressure."
Becca Schlechte had eight kills of her own with 22 assists, 12 digs and one solo block. Quast added 18 assists and six digs, while Tabbert had 15 digs and Knop added 10 digs and four aces. Morgan Stremming also had a solo block on the night.
Moving forward, Knop was clear on what it would take to bring home the Comets' first state title since the 1986-87 season.
"This; exactly what we did tonight," she said. "We didn't give up."
Liberty 20 26 18
Stew-Stras 25 24 25
Stew-Stras: Schlechte (1 ace, 8 kills, 22 assists, 12 digs, 1 solo block, 2 block assists); Quast (3 kills, 18 assists, 6 digs, 1 block assist); Knop (4 aces, 18 kills, 10 digs); Tabbert (1 ace, 11 kills, 15 digs); Stremming (1 dig, 1 solo block, 1 block assist); Locke (6 digs); Kaufman (2 aces, 2 block assists)