NORMAL — Bett O'Neal knew she had to give it all for her Bloomington High School volleyball team in Thursday night's Big 12 Conference showdown with rival Normal Community.
"I was playing for team; I doing all of that for my team," said the 5-foot-7 junior, who turned aside three straight NCHS attacks at the net on match point as the visiting Purple Raiders claimed a 25-22, 25-22 triumph.
"We talk about it every day: we're not playing for ourselves, we're playing for our team. We had to put it all out for this one match."
The win gave BHS, 20-11 overall, sole possession of the conference lead at 9-0 while avenging a three-set loss in the Intercity Tournament.
"We knew we lost (to NCHS) in Intercity so we knew we had to bring it, and we did," said junior Lexi Packard, whose block allowed the Purple Raiders to serve for set point in the first set. "We had a lot more intensity and we've been working a lot harder in practice."
Leah Anderson paced BHS with 16 kills while O'Neal, running the offense in place of the injured Corinna Jones, racked up 27 assists. Grace Sanders' 15 digs keyed a defensive effort that limited NCHS' standout hitters Grace Cleveland and MaKenna Barnhart.
"We know that MaKenna and Grace are their big guns and we've got to do our best to control them and I thought we did a pretty good job of that," said Coach Joe Sanders, whose team can wrap up the outright Big 12 title Tuesday against Peoria Richwoods. "We played great defense today; I was really proud."
NCHS dipped to 21-2 overall and 8-1 in Big 12 play. Barnhart topped the Iron with 18 kills, 16 digs and three blocks while Jamie Vasilou booked 24 assists.
"Bloomington's always a tough team and this is always a charged game," said Iron coach Christine Konopasek. "They just battled the entire time, it didn't matter what the score was. They were finding ways."
NCHS held the lead from the outset until the Raiders pulled even at 12-12, but BHS didn't take its first lead until an Anderson smash made it 22-21. Another Anderson kill preceded Packard's block and two volleys later an Iron hitting error closed the set.
"We just had to communicate a lot and talk to each other, support each other through everything and every error," said O'Neal. "It meant a lot that we pulled it through."
BHS carried that momentum in building a 5-0 lead in the second, but NCHS responded with six straight points coming out of a timeout. Neither team led by more than three the rest of the way.
After three straight BHS violations gave the Iron a 19-18 advantage, the Raiders stormed back. An Ellie Weltha kill put the visitors ahead 22-21 and NCHS could not recover.
"I don't think it's a bad loss, but it's frustrating," said Konopasek. "I don't think that was our best match and to be at home and playing Bloomington, you need your best because they're going to bring theirs.
"If it's something we can learn from, something that will help us prepare for postseason, then it's a good match and a good loss for us."
Coach Sanders felt his squad had better focus compared to the previous matchup with NCHS.
"The kids, we kind of stayed in the moment and that was our goal," he said. "We played well at Intercity but we had longer streaks where we were a little bit out of it.
"We had a lot of second and third opportunities (tonight) and that's hard to get against big hitters. I'm happy for a win. It's huge for us."