NORMAL — Fans at Redbird Arena on Friday got to see University High School's brand of volleyball during its Class 3A state semifinal against Belleville Althoff.
Unfortunately, the Crusaders had already won the first game and had an 18-11 lead in the second before the Pioneers put their style on display.
The resulting 25-13, 25-21 loss left Coach Mike Bolhuis wishing his team had unleashed its sizzle sooner.
"Coming into the match, we talked about how we wanted to avoid the set one (problems) when you are playing a team like Althoff, which was on this stage last year," he said. "They are used to the environment. You know that nerves aren't really going to affect them.
"As a team, we haven't been on this stage before so we were trying to avoid that first set as much as possible. For whatever reason, you're not playing the true volleyball you are used to."
In game two, the Pioneers demonstrated the scrambling defense and slick passing they're known for during a 10-4 run to get within 22-21. But then Althoff's Addie Burris sandwiched two kills around a U High error to end the match.
"We're happy about that set," Bolhuis said. "Obviously, the result wasn't what we wanted."
With the demise of an 11-match winning streak, U High fell to 28-11 ahead of Saturday's 4 p.m. third-place match against Arlington Heights St. Viator (29-12).
The Crusaders (40-1), the winningest team in Althoff history, will face Chicago Resurrection (34-8) in Saturday's 5:30 p.m. final. In last year's 2A semifinals, Althoff lost to St. Joseph-Ogden before going on to place third.
"The girls came out fired up," said Althoff coach Sara Thomas-Dietrich after her 21st consecutive win. "They remember the feeling from last year and it was a goal not to let what happened last year happen this year."
The Pioneers committed three of their 10 hitting errors while falling behind 4-0 in game one. Their fourth hitting error pushed Althoff in front, 12-5.
"We were swinging a little too hard," said U High senior Addy Loeffler. "We were going after it because you can't win being soft about it."
U High never scored while serving until the Crusaders were called for a double hit that made it 12-7. Amber Juarez continued to serve U High to within 12-9, the last point coming on an ace.
That's when Bolhuis thought the Pioneers would catch fire.
"Althoff is just kind of relentless," he said. "They don't let those runs happen very often. They're just a really good side-out team."
The Crusaders answered with an 8-1 run that included two aces from Mary Wessel. Game point came on a kill by Katie Woemhoener, the daughter of former Illinois State basketball player Todd Woemhoener.
U High's 13 points in game one was its third worst single-game showing of the season.
In game two, Althoff never got breathing room until a 5-0 run put it on top 16-9.
During its 10-4 run to get within 22-21, U High displayed its typical balance as Macy Tongate provided two of her team-high five kills and Jessica McDowell and Abbey Collins combined on a block before Illyana Lin and McDowell added kills.
Miami of Ohio recruit Louise Comerford, a 6-foot left-handed setter, kept Althoff in gear with 18 assists, five kills and five digs.
"She's very athletic," Bolhuis said. "She puts the ball exactly where she wants to put the ball. Then there is always the threat of her attacking on a second contact. We don't see too many setters that play that style."
Karinna Gal, a 6-1 sophomore, had seven kills as the Crusaders outhit U High, .266 to .107.
The Pioneers, who had 18 kills to Althoff's 30, also got four kills apiece from Isabel Schaefbauer and McDowell. Schaefbauer also had a team-high 10 assists and 10 digs.
Heading into the third-place match, Juarez sees a lot to fight for.
"We want to end our season on a win," she said. "That second set, we started to come back. We started to get used to the environment and play more of our game so we're hoping to pick up where we left off."