While the focus in the Class 3A girls volleyball state tournament this weekend may be on whether the defending champions can repeat, another program looks for its first state title in 10 years and has no reason to believe it can’t win a fourth state title at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena.
Although Joliet Catholic Academy has the fewest overall wins of the 16 teams who have advanced to the finals in all classes, its challenging schedule and how well it performed down the stretch are positive signs that coach Christine Scheibe’s Angels could play for their first title since 2015.
JCA (25-14) meets Normal University High (33-6) at 5:30 p.m. Friday after the semifinal between defending 3A champion Sterling (34-6) and Nazareth Academy (28-7). The Angels defeated Nazareth, 25-20, 25-18, in a conference match Oct. 22.
JCA beat U-High last year in the sectional finals and then won a supersectional before losing to Sterling in the semifinals and finally beating Chicago Latin to finish third.
After a memorable three-year stretch from 2008 to 2010 when it only lost 12 matches and won two of its three title matches, JCA’s past few trips to the semifinals have had teams with similar records.
JCA’s four most recent state teams, which included second-place finishes in 2014 and 2015, generally had started slow but then won at an 80% clip down the stretch. That’s true once again this year, as the Angels have won 14 of their past 17 matches.
“So many of us experienced what it was like last year at state, and it gave us motivation,” Bella Ray said. “We wanted to do it again and inspired others who weren’t there to want it.”
JCA’s leaders include Bella Ray (289 kills, 92 blocks), Riley Hungate (177 kills, 162 digs), Emily Surin (161 kills, 111 digs), Kristen Leuszler (132 kills), Erin O’Grady (267 digs), Ryan Hinshaw (487 assists, 161 digs), Isabelle Horkey (254 assists, 163 digs) and Jillian Gray.
“The whole season we’ve been through so much,” Hinshaw said. “We worked so hard in practice to get our chemistry back together. We’re so blessed to get a team downstate again.”
The Angels will win their 10th state trophy in 17 years and hope to play in the title match for the seventh time and win their first title since 2009. Other than Sterling’s title last season, the only other program in the 3A finals that has won a trophy is U-High, which has five, including consecutive Class A titles in 1999 and 2000.
“This team has had so many highs and lows,” Leuszler said. “But the way we’re playing now is the best we’ve played all season. I definitely think we’re peaking at the right time.”
U-High capped its regular season on a high note by beating Sterling, 25-18, 25-18. The Pioneers are led by seniors Alayna Crabtree (328 kills, 242 digs) and Isabel Schaefbauer (156 kills, 421 assists), junior Kendall Burk (473 assists) and freshman Lily Barry (242 kills, 178 digs).
Sterling, again coached by Dale Dykeman, has won 18 of its past 19 matches with the loss coming against U-High on Oct. 26. It looks to junior sisters Brook Borum (332 kills, 157 digs) and Bree Borum (262 kills, 751 assists, 272 digs) and freshman Grace Egan (339 kills, 239 digs).
Nazareth has won 17 of its past 20 matches with its latest win over St. Francis and the two losses coming to Marist and JCA. Roadrunners’ leaders include sophomore Kathryn Hurta (365 kills, 186 digs), junior Isabel Decker (283 kills, 229 digs) and senior Elizabeth Sandt (703 assists, 254 digs).