Story and photos by Chet Piotrowski Jr.

What appeared to be a collision between Apollo Conference foes Mattoon and Taylorville for the title game actually turned out to be a repeat (or almost) of pool play for the 41st Mattoon Girls Volleyball Tournament championship match Saturday.

Mattoon (5-3) had knocked off St. Joe-Ogden (3-4) in three sets during pool play.

But the Spartans were able to scrape past the Green Wave in the championship match. Mattoon fought back after losing the first set and remained within a point, 12-11, near the end of final abbreviated third set, before losing, 25-14, 20-25, 15-12.

“Overall, I think we did really well,” Mattoon senior Lily Ghere said. “Coming into it, we’re still learning because we haven’t played together. We’ve all been split up into JV and varsity and now we’re connecting and coming together. We played extremely well. I didn’t even think we could play that good.”

The Spartans knocked out Taylorville from having championship hopes to the third-place match, setting up the rematch against Mattoon.

Mattoon coach Kayla Quick said she was indifferent about not seeing Taylorville in the championship match.

“I was OK either way,” she said. “It’s always fun for the girls to see Taylorville before it counts on our conference record. But, at the same time, it forces us to work a little harder to know what to expect going into that first conference matchup.”

Mattoon had defeated the Spartans in pool play by mounting a rally to capture the third set 15-14, after having dropped the second set. The Green Wave had won the first set, the only time they did so in five matches Saturday.

The Spartans ran away from the Green Wave in the first set of the championship match taking a convincing 25-14 victory, relying heavily on dinked shots in order to score.

Quick said it’s an aspect the team needs to work on.

“I’m glad it’s come early in the season and we have time to make those adjustments,” she said. “They were tipping on us, and even though we can read the ball and the hitter because she coming up with her hand up – but if we’re not ready and our toes to push that ball up, we’re never going to get it. It’s not something new to us, but it is something we’ve been working on and we need to improve on.”

Mattoon raced out to a 13-4 lead in the second, changing the mood in the main gym, punctuated by Ghere leaping out of bounds and swatting the ball with one hand back into play for her teammates.

“I knew my job was to get it back in play,” she said. “I was doing it for my team.” 

Quick said it speaks volumes to what lengths the girls are willing to sacrifice themselves to keep the ball in play.

“We’ve talked a lot about what it means to trust your teammates on the floor,” she said. “Everybody has a job. These girls are coming together in a way that shows the other players I’m ready to do my job are you ready to do yours? The fact that we can make fun and awesome plays like that speaks worlds of the way these girls are responding to one another.”

Mattoon senior Jess Evans said they didn’t want to repeat how they had played in the first set.

“I feel like we were all tired near the end,” she said. “But once we lost the first set like that, we really, really, really didn’t want to lose like that again. So, we kicked it into high gear for the second set.”

The play forced a timeout by St. Joe-Ogden coach Katie Oehmke. The stoppage proved helpful as the Spartans went on a 7-2 run to close within 16-12. 

Spartan senior Mikayla Haley notched a kill tieing the set at 20 with what was thought to have silenced the Green Wave’s momentum. That was not to be.

Mattoon went on a run of its own, closing out the middle set by rolling off five straight points for the 25-20 win.

“I think we all kind of impressed ourselves,” Evans said.

We definitely had some communication errors, but that’s something we’re going to learn as we go,” Ghere said.

The Green Wave took a 4-2 lead in the third set, when the Spartans went on a 5-point run. Ashlynne Kuhn made a sonic-boom level kill to bring the Green Wave back to within one, followed by Ghere with a perfectly executed tip barely over the net tieing it at 8 points apiece.

Mattoon took a three-point lead at 11-8 forcing another Spartans timeout. This time the stoppage was key as St. Joe-Ogden ran off 4 straight points forcing Quick to call a timeout of her own. Kuhn made another spike that ricochetted off a Spartans player out of bounds tieing the game at 12, but that would be the last Green Wave point of the match.

“We talked about today being a long day and them getting fatigued quickly and talked about digging our heels in and not letting matches go because we were tired,” Quick said. “They met that expectation. There were a few times that we fell short of that goal, but honestly, they did so well. We’ve been working so hard; we’ve been drilling, and drilling, drilling on passing and solid servicing looks like. They’ve done wonderfully.”

Ghere said that while the team never gave up, they’re still building trust amongst each other.

“Sometimes we have confusion in trusting our teammates,” she said. “We just want to get that touch on the ball. It switches direction and the person behind you can’t get it up. Trusting our teammates is something we have to work on.”

NOTES: Jess Evans (4 aces, 33 kills, 6 blocks, 52 digs) and Lily Ghere (2 aces, 25 kills, 4 blocks, 44 digs) were named to the all-tournament team.

Quick appreciates the two players’ willingness to adjust on the fly.

“There were a couple of times when Lily was like ‘Coach, I don’t know what to do, they’re all over me on the outside.’,” Quick said. “I’m like ‘Okay, well let’s think about what’s happening. They’re all over you. Where are the holes? Where have you not tried yet?’ She was able to make an adjustment and the next ball that came to her, she scored our point. It’s things like that. Jess is able to do that too. She has a mean cross-court cut that is just…if you’re not with your feet set down, it’s lethal. She does a fantastic job with that.”

The Green Wave enter the Labor Day Break at 5-3. All eight matches have gone three sets.

“It’s kind of a running joke,” Quick said. “We’ve played six or seven and all of them have gone to three.”

The Green Wave dropped the first set in four of their five matches Saturday.

“We seem to have that theme where we started off slow, and made our comeback in the second,” Ghere said. “We want our playing time I guess.”

Added Quick: “It either speaks to our difficulty in getting going or our perseverance as a group. I choose to see it that way because what they’ve done really well is digging in their heels and pushing back not letting teams walk all over them because we are small. Teams perceive us way differently than when we get going and put balls in play. They’re like ‘Wow, this is not a team to be underestimated’.”