NORMAL – Brittani Tabbert was on a mission to bring Stew-Stras to Saturday’s IHSA Class 1A state championship game and she paved the way in the Comets’ two-set semifinal win over New Athens on Friday.
The senior almost single-handedly pulled her team out of an early second-set hole, 8-4, with four kills during the Comets’ six-point run that included a New Athens mishit and service error.
Tabbert tied for a team-high nine kills with Kendall Knop and served her only ace of the contest during a four-point Stew-Stras rally later in the second set.
“I just wanted to win,” Tabbert said. “Being here is just amazing and I wanted to be in the championship.”
The Comets (28-12) will play Keith Country Day (38-3) for the Class 1A state championship at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Redbird Arena in Normal, but it was two late-set tips off the hands of Becca Schlechte that helped clinch the spot in Saturday’s game.
“The other team started pulling back deep for the hitting, because we didn’t do a lot of tipping,” Stew-Stras head coach Ronda Schlechte said. “Finding those holes was huge.”
Becca Schlechte’s first tip gave the Comets a 20-19 advantage and her second tip pulled them out of another tie game to take a 22-21 lead in the second set.
However, New Athens (28-10) held the lead late, 23-22, after losing the first set by 13 points and the Yellow Jackets’ nerves may have gotten the best of them. A service error gave Stew-Stras the ball back, 23-23, for the final two points of the match.
“I felt my girls stand up a little,” New Athens head coach Kyla Patton said. “(Stew-Stras) played on their toes. They anticipated everything and looked awesome out there.”
The final four appearance was the first in New Athens’ school history and Patton said she felt like her team was a bit “star struck.”
Jessica Crabtree said the state tournament atmosphere overwhelmed her team and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.
“We came (to Redbird Arena) yesterday and practiced, and it was overwhelming just to be here,” Crabtree said. “At game time, nerves are 10 times greater.”
The Comets had a different reaction to the high stakes game and 10,200-capacity arena on Illinois State’s campus. They embraced it.
“I love big gyms,” Tabbert said. “Everybody said we all felt famous being on such a big court. It felt awesome.”
Baylee Quast, who had a team-high 14 assists, said her nerves were nothing compared to what she felt Thursday during the team’s first practices at the arena.
The Comets showed they weren’t going to back down from the stage, as they looked at a slim, 9-8, lead and went on a 16-4 run to win the first set, 25-12.
Stew-Stras scored the last seven points of the set, including two kills from Tabbert and Schlechte, two blocks and a New Athens mishit.
“They’re a great team, comparable to us – a good group of girls from a small town,” Patton said. “They got in our heads a little bit and took advantage of it.”
The Yellow Jackets couldn’t defend Stew-Stras’ multi-faceted hitters, including Tabbert and Knop, although New Athens matched the Comets’ runs in the second set until the end. The lead changed hands five times on eight ties in the second set.
“The best defense we had was our blocks,” said Crabtree, whose team finished with four. “They did have excellent hitters. They were amazing.”
Stew-Stras (28-12) vs. Keith Country Day (38-3)
The Comets’ hitters will have to be at the top of their game against defending state champion Keith Country Day on Saturday and Schlechte knows it, but she knows what her players are capable of, too.
“The girls are very court smart in being able to get around the blocks and getting something down,” Schlechte said. “Our hitters are very good at going down the line or a crosscourt shot.”
Tabbert stood out, Schlechte said, coming up with her nine kills against New Athens in a variety of ways against the Yellow Jackets’ double-block.
Tabbert and Knop led the charge for the Comets’ attacking game, while Quast and Becca Schlechte each finished with four kills.
“We like to move around a little bit more so the blocks on the other side don’t get set up on us,” Schlechte said. “Moving the sets around a little bit more throws the other team off a bit.”
Stew-Stras will be up against the Cougars, who have five players listed at 5-foot-10 or taller, including 6-foot-2 Adeja Lambert and 5-foot-11 Iman McGary. Lambert leads the team with 151 aces, while McGary has a team-high 332 kills this season.
But height isn’t something that scares the Comets. The team gained experience playing against bigger teams during the late October Mt. Pulaski Tournament, where they matched up against teams like Edwards County, Mt. Pulaski and Illini Central.
“The height, of course, is an issue, but we don’t want to focus on that too awfully much,” Schlechte said. “They make mistakes, otherwise the (West Prairie) game wouldn’t have been so close in that third set.”
West Prairie (30-7-2) took Keith Country Day to three sets in the first Class 1A semifinal on Friday, but lost 16-25, 25-21, 17-25.
Instead of focusing on the Cougars’ height advantage, Quast said the team is focusing on doing something they’ve been talking about all season.
“We talked all season about making history this year because we knew we had so much potential,” Quast said. “Now we start talking about Saturday and how we want to make Tammy (Manhart) live it up with us again because she’s been here before.”
Manhart played for the 1995 Comets, which was the last Stew-Stras team to get to the final four in the state volleyball tournament. The last championship was in 1986.
The 1995 team finished third, but the Comets are guaranteed one of the top two spots in Class 1A – they just have their sights set on being number one.
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stew-Stras	25 25
New Athens	12 23
Stew-Stras: Schlechte (4 kills, 8 assists, 8 digs, 3 blocks), Stremming (1 kill, 1 dig, 3 blocks), Tabbert (9 kills, 2 assists, 1 ace, 6 digs, 1 block), Knop (9 kills, 10 digs), Kaufman (1 kill, 1 assist, 1 ace, 1 block), Quast (4 kills, 14 assists, 2 digs, 1 block), Locke (1 assist, 3 digs)
New Athens: Lance (3 digs, 1 block), Dutkanych (2 kills, 1 assist, 1 ace, 3 digs), Crabtree (4 kills, 6 assists, 1 ace, 4 digs), Al-Bori (3 kills, 1 assist, 8 digs, 1 block), Marlow (5 kills, 1 ace, 6 digs, 1 block), White (4 kills, 4 digs, 1 block), Wahlig (6 assists, 2 digs), Park (1 dig)