FARMINGTON — The defending Class 2A state champions, Eureka High School's volleyball team possesses plenty of talent and physical proficiency.
But resilience and determination were the Hornets' most vital attributes Wednesday. Eureka overcame a large early deficit in the first set and withstood three set points in the second to turn back Heart of Illinois Conference rival Deer Creek-Mackinaw for the Farmington Sectional title.
"We just had to keep bringing each other together and take one point at a time. That's how we got back to our rhythm," Hornets setter Maddie McCunn said after the 25-20, 28-26 triumph.
McCunn, the lone senior on a junior-dominated roster, distributed 22 assists while Hailey Flowers and Courtney Heffren had 13 kills apiece as Eureka improved to 30-7 and advanced to face Quincy Notre Dame in Friday's 7 p.m. Illini Bluffs Super-Sectional at Glasford.
"We had a lot of confidence going through the day and we were all hyped for this game," said Flowers. "It just showed on the court. We had so much energy and wanted to win so badly."
Eureka coach Tracy Heffren knew her team had the capability to overcome a sluggish start.
"I just told the girls, 'Always look to each other. Make eye contact in the huddle and rely on each other.' That's what they did, they just stuck together," she said.
"They're very calm and they know they can win. They keep striving for that and they don't get rattled very easily. That showed tonight."
Carson Smalley paced the Chiefs (29-7-1) with 14 kills while Morgan Burr totaled 14 assists.
"It's a tough one. They just got some big kills when they needed them," said Dee-Mack coach Brandon Mueller, whose team lost a three-setter to Eureka in the regular season but won the McLean County Tournament after the Hornets lost in the semifinals.
"No. 3 (Heffren) and No. 8 (Flowers), we knew they were going to them but we didn't do a good job stopping them. They made some big plays when they had to, some big digs. We just came up a little bit short."
The Chiefs scored the first five points and led 8-2 before Eureka mounted a surge to take its first lead at 10-9.
"We knew we had to fight the whole game and that's just what we started to do," said Courtney Heffren, who also had a team-high 13 digs.
After a stuff by Heffren put the Hornets up 15-11, Dee-Mack rebounded to pull even at 17-17 on a Smalley putback. But the Chiefs could not reclaim the lead and the Hornets closed out the set on another Heffren kill.
Dee-Mack got off to another fast start in the second set at 4-0, but Eureka didn't take as long to battle back and scored the next four points. The Hornets took their first lead at 11-10, one of four lead changes during a run of 20 volleys in which neither team held more than a one-point advantage.
A touch kill by Ashley Melton gave the Chiefs their first chance for set point at 24-23, but the Hornets held firm with a Flowers kill. Eureka turned aside two more set chances before a Lauren Ausmus block allowed McCunn to serve for the match. A back row kill by Flowers closed out the win.
"I just thought once we made a couple mistakes it kind of got to us a little bit and it was hard to get out of that rut we were in," said Mueller.
Coach Heffren said her team has not felt any extra weight of expectations as defending champs.
"We talked at the beginning of the season that we were going to have a target on our back," she said. "We're a totally different team so we just need to keep focusing on our goals and striving to win."
The players said they just want to make a mark for themselves.
"We just set a goal to win super-sectionals and make it (back) to state," said Flowers. "We want to make our own statement as a team."