Story by Mike Monahan • Photos by Chet Piotrowski
EFFINGHAM – Before the volleyball season started, Mattoon players wrote their goals on a volleyball.
Thursday one of the goals was reached – an IHSA Class 3A volleyball regional championship.
The Green Wave, the third-seeded team, beat No. 2 Marion 25-15, 23-25, 25-16 to not only win their 20th win, but earn the first regional championship since 2017.
“For these girls to pull through and get up there (sectional tournament), I am over the moon excited for this group because I do have a group of seniors who didn’t want their season to be done,” said Mattoon coach Kayla Quick, “It is a milestone that I knew they could do and they wrote and they did it, and now we get to add win sectionals on the volleyball.”
Mattoon (20-12) will play Waterloo, a 25-21, 25-11 winner over Bethalto Civic Memorial. Waterloo is 28-5 and winners of the Mississippi Valley Conference. The sectional semifinal is set for 5:30 p.m. Monday at Bethalto Civic Memorial. The other semifinal match features fellow Apollo Conference foe Taylorville (34-4) vs. Centralia (34-2).
“This is a high,” said 5-foot-10 Mattoon senior Averie Smith. “It was a big goal for us. It just feels great to get past this milestone.”
It is Mattoon’s sixth regional title since 2012.
The match started out great for the Green Wave as they only trailed once, 5-4, and took the lead for good on two points, including an ace by Averie Smith and a tip by Holly McReynolds. Neveah Laster served four points, including an ace for a 12-6 lead. The Wildcats, who were hoping for their first regional since 2012, didn’t get closer than five the rest of the way. Faith Niebrugge served the final two points for the 10-point triumph.
Mattoon had watched some of Marion’s 25-21, 25-20 win over Olney before they beat Effingham in the semifinals a few days ago.
“We made sure we came early on Tuesday so we could get a feel for what they (Marion) are like,” said Quick. “We don’t get a chance to see these Southern Illinois teams at all during the season. For us to be able to come early Tuesday and catch a little bit was great. We were able to prepare a little bit in practice. We caught on a little bit to where their holes were on their defense. We tried to maximize as much as we could and we were successful with that.”
The second set featured 10 ties and three lead changes. Mattoon led 21-20 after a service error – one of eight by Marion in the match.
It was tied at 22 when Mattoon had its own service error to fall behind 23-22.
Another service error made it 24-23.
“I told them from the get-go you are not going to be able to run away with this,” said Quick. “There is a reason Marion is a two seed. They are a team to be respected, and they can’t be overlooked.”
Bella Smith started the third set with two points, including an ace. The Green Wave took a 6-1 advantage after Cadance McDaniel served three points. The Wildcats never led in the third set.
“At the end of the first set we got in our huddle and we talked about being able to come out on top and starting early and we ended up falling short of that,” Averie Smith said. “I think, sometimes, when you beat a team by so much in the first set that it is kind of hard to start with that same intensity. Going into the third set, we knew it was time to go and we knew we didn’t want this to be our last game. That was a big motivator for a lot of us seniors (nine).”
Marion was within 14-11 when Mattoon went on a 5-2 run that included a kill by Laster for a 19-12 advantage. The Wildcats didn’t get any closer than five the rest of the way.
“I am just proud of my girls that they were able to come out and stick together as a unit and then find a way to manufacture those points,” said Quick. “It wasn’t Marion’s errors that won the game for us. It was us creating those points and making those things happen.”
Faith Niebrugge, Bella Smith and Averie Smith had three aces apiece, Niebrugge was tops in digs with 22 while McDaniel had 20 and Chloe Jobe added 15. Averie Smith had four block assists and nine kills to lead the Green Wave, who are now part of the 32 teams left.
Bella Smith had 52 assists.
“It was a lot of reading. I had to be mentally prepared for that,” said Averie Smith. “I don’t think that is something that is just a skill, but it is something that I have to read on the other side of the court.”
Mattoon recorded 10 aces, 69 digs, nine block assists, 52 assists and 28 kills.
“I said it from the get-go there is a mental game with these girls, ” said Quick. “They went in feeling fresh and ready to go. I told them the second set when you compare it with the first set our communication fell apart in set two and it showed. We came out in set three ready to talk and be a unit.”
Quick was impressed with the defense.
“I have seen these girls pick up volleyballs before, but they were all over the place,” said Quick. “We told them at the beginning of this match today: ‘I don’t want you to leave this gym, win or lose, feeling like you had something else to give.’ They left everything they had out here.”