NORMAL — The volleyball hotbed that is the Pantagraph area has a long-standing list of prerequisites for its state tournament qualifiers.
Rule No. 1 is that Final Four squads must have at least one superstar — if not more.
But now University High School has blown that theory out of the gym with a star-less lineup that takes a 28-10 record into the Class 3A state tournament at Redbird Arena, where it will face Belleville Althoff (39-1) in a 5:30 p.m. semifinal on Friday.
The Pioneers did it by having many chip in.
"From a kill perspective, we don't have anybody over 200, but we've got six players in between 100 and 200," said second-year coach Mike Bolhuis. "It's probably the most well-balanced (high school) team I've ever coached."
Senior middle hitter Addy Loeffler likes it that way.
"I would definitely say we don't have a standout player and that's what makes us so hard to play against because you don't know who is going to have the 'on' night that night," she said.
"Every single one of us has a job and when we put it all together, it ends up working that we all do well. They can't stop us all."
The Pioneers had a modest 12-8 record after placing second in the Intercity Tournament behind Normal Community. Since then, U High has gone 16-2 and has yet to lose a set in five postseason matches.
"We were playing a pretty competitive schedule all year," Bolhuis said. "Eventually that paid off, seeing those competitive teams and what it takes to beat them."
Among the bigger victories were wins over Big 12 Conference champion Bloomington, Naperville North and Waunakee (Wis.).
"You start getting some wins like that under your belt, you start realizing you can compete with just about anybody," Bolhuis said. "I think the girls started believing a little bit more."
A 28-26, 27-29, 25-20 loss to NCHS is what libero Amber Juarez tabs as the turning point.
"They have a lot of girls playing D-I," she said. "That's probably some of the best volleyball we've played all season."
Bolhuis had a ringside seat for good volleyball in 2012 when he coached a 38-1 Deer Creek-Mackinaw squad to the 2A state crown.
"On that team, we had a couple of those star players," he said. "The biggest similarity (between the teams) would be work ethic."
Loeffler rates Bolhuis the best coach she's had.
"He knows what he's talking about," she said. "But he's invested in it, too. He wants what's best for us."
Bolhuis applauds his team's chemistry.
"You can tell they enjoy playing with each other and for each other," he said.
Another plus has been the reserves' ability to push the starters in practice.
"Everybody has got a critical role," Bolhuis said. "It's been something all season that has benefited us, just how competitive our practices are. Every single day we keep score with everything we do because we want them learning to compete."
Among the eight seniors, Illyana Lin, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter, has swatted a team-high 183 kills. She's shown a knack for turning high-pressure moments into points.
"She's had a couple matches now where she's really stepped up from an attacking standpoint," said Bolhuis, noting Lin is drawing attention from college recruiters.
The 6-0 Loeffler, one of seven Pioneers 5-10 or taller, is another front-row force who doesn't crumble when the stakes are high.
"I think other players take comfort in that she's very calm and collected in these big moments," Bolhuis said.
Sophomore setter Isabel Schaefbauer, who has a team-high 417 assists, brings versatility. A year ago, she was part of a third-place state tennis doubles team and played volleyball, too. She opened this year playing both sports, but later dropped tennis.
A 5-9 leaper, Schaefbauer also is formidable in the front row (132 kills) and back row (148 digs). Another net threat is 5-11 Macy Tongate, who has 135 kills.
"She's probably touching around 9-9," said Bolhuis of the sky-walking Tongate. "Hitting at that high of a height, she makes it difficult to defend against so we've really demanded quite a bit of her."
Jessica McDowell (168 kills, 251 digs) is another well-rounded player. She and Schaefbauer are six-rotation players along with Juarez, who has a team-high 278 digs.
"She rarely lets setter attacks score," Bolhuis said of Juarez.
Other starters are the aggressive-serving Alexis Engst (370 assists), who sets for three rotations, and Abbey Collins, who has a team-high 34 blocks. Reserve Kimmy Sendelbach (163 digs) plays three rotations in the back row.
Sendelbach is a "spark of energy all the time, Bolhuis said, on a team the stat sheet says has no stars. A state title might help the Pioneers prove they actually have seven or eight.