Effingham Daily News
The players make her nervous sometimes, especially when they fall behind Neoga by six points in the second set, but Stew-Stras battled back to win the regional championship on Thursday and left head coach Ronda Schlechte with a permanent smile.
The Comets watched Taylor Gresens serve Neoga to a 6-0 lead in the second set, after top-seeded Stew-Stras pulled out a 29-27 victory in the opening set – bad timing for Schlechte's squad to go through a lull.
“I was really worried,” Schlechte said. “They give me gray hair sometimes. In this situation, we can't afford to have those (lulls) when you're playing against a team that good.”
Stew-Stras came within two points of the Indians four times after falling behind, but Neoga countered the comeback three times. The Comets saw Neoga extend a 13-11 lead into an 18-13 lead, quickly.
“All season long, we've been playing like that,” Schlechte said. “The girls tell me it's because they're high school girls and give me a heart attack. Thank goodness we were able to do something.”
Stew-Stras scored the next two points, only to see Neoga recover on the next point like the Indians had earlier in the set – only this time, the Comets bounced right back.
The Comets scored five straight points, behind 19-15, including a one-on-one block by Clara Kaufman against Neoga's Courtney Croy to tie the game, 19-19.
Neoga took the lead back, 21-20, for the last time, as Stew-Stras' Kendall Knop turned it on after facing triple blocks all game long.
“I had triple for a while, but kept swinging and didn't give up,” Knop said. “A couple times they didn't close the block, so that gave me a seem and I saw it.”
Schlechte said Knop is the team's “go-to girl” when the Comets need points because her strength is placing her kills where she wants them; however, it was a tip from Knop's fingers that put the Comets one point away from the win.
Knop and Kaufman nearly collided going for a set near the net, ahead 23-21. The taller Kaufman got her hands on a light set and Knop reached to tip it inches over the net, dropping in for a point.
“I thought I was going to be called for a carry,” said Knop, who had eight kills in the match. “I got my hands on it just enough.”
Neoga head coach Reeni Letizia said Knop's tip was one of many points that fell Stew-Stras' way during the Comets' comeback win in the second set, 25-21.
Becca Schlechte finished a number of tips over the net, including one that put the Comets within one point of a first-set win; however, Neoga battled to extend the first set, taking the lead twice and tying the game twice after Stew-Stras scored to take a 24-21 lead.
Neoga scored four straight points, trailing 24-21, to move into the drivers seat, serving with a chance to steal the first set that Stew-Stras led the whole way until the Indians' 25-24 lead.
“They wont give up and that's something that's in this group of girls,” Letizia said. “Whether it turned out the way they wanted or not, I was just real proud of the way they came out and tried to win.”
Neoga came within one point of a win again, after Stew-Stras tied the first set 25-25, but the Comets scored two consecutive points and couldn't put the game away without a 27-27 tie. They scored the last two points to win, 29-27.
Stew-Stras clinched the regional championship with the win and a spot in Tuesday's Arcola Sectional against Tri-County, which Brittani Tabbert said is right where the Comets want to be.
“We've worked really hard,” said Tabbert, who had a team-high 10 kills. “After we lost (the National Trail Conference championship to St. Anthony), we told ourselves we're going to win the regional because of losing in the NTC.”
This time of year, with other teams' seasons ending, Schlechte said she is glad not to have to give up her core group of six seniors, including Tabbert, just yet – while Neoga will lose five.
“This year, what we have on our team, the strength we have, is a huge core group,” Schlechte said. “This is the year to do something and we said that from day one.”
The Comets have a chance to continue their season at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, against a Tri-County team they've beaten twice this season.
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stew-Stras 29 25
Neoga 27 21
Stew-Stras: Schlechte (5 kills, 12 assists, 1 block), Quast (2 aces, 3 kills, 10 assists), Knop (2 aces, 8 kills, 1 assist), Tabbert (1 ace, 10 kills, 1 block), Stremming (1 block), Locke (1 ace), Kaufman (1 assist, 1 block)
Neoga: Kastl (9 digs), Ott (3 kills, 6 digs), Croy (9 kills, 2 blocks, 1 dig), Deters (7 kills, 6 digs, 2 blocks), Long (1 kill, 19 assist), Harshman (8 digs, 1 ace), Gresens (4 kills, 2 digs, 2 aces), Partlow (3 digs), Easton (2 digs)