EUREKA — Just when it seemed Eureka High School's volleyball team was about to cruise into the Elite Eight, Deer Creek-Mackinaw had other ideas Wednesday night.
The Chiefs tied the second set at 24-all and looked prime to force a deciding third set in the Class 2A Monmouth United Sectional championship match moved to Eureka College.
"We had to relax," said Eureka senior standout Hailey Flowers. "We were overpressing a few times. We missed serves and we were trying to get aced."
The Hornets got a sideout before Darby Leman's ace finished off a hard-fought 25-22, 26-24 victory over their Heart of Illinois Conference rivals.
The win upped Eureka's record to 34-3 and advanced the Hornets to Friday's 7 p.m. Beardstown Super-Sectional against Pleasant Plains.
"Playing a team three times in one season is definitely hard," said Eureka coach Tracy Heffren. "Dee-Mack is a great team and we know they have that never-say-die attitude, and that's what they showed tonight."
Dee-Mack (26-11), which lost two previous matches to the Hornets, set up a potent block, led by 6-foot Addy Gruse, designed to shut down Eureka outside hitters Flowers and Courtney Heffren.
That worked to an extent as the Radford-bound Flowers had eight kills while Heffren was limited to four. But Eureka also got four kills each from Joan Zimmerman and Lauren Ausmus that helped push the Hornets over the top.
"We wanted the other girls to beat us," said Dee-Mack coach Brandon Mueller. "I don't think they beat us, but they had a couple big kills and big moments."
Tracy Heffren was impressed by Dee-Mack's defense at the net.
"They really put up a good block. They must have worked on that. They did a great job," she said. "It kind of threw us a little bit and we were not able to pull away, but we kind of figured it out."
The Chiefs got off to a good start. They took a 10-6 lead in the first set before Eureka scored five straight points to assume a 16-12 lead. Dee-Mack battled back and used two straight kills by Gruse to forge a 22-all.
Zimmerman, a 5-8 junior, put the Hornets ahead to stay with a kill. Ausmus followed with a tip before Ausmus and Alison Nohl got the block to secure the first set.
Dee-Mack didn't regroup quickly for the second set as Eureka surged out to a 5-0 lead before Mueller called a timeout.
"I think we were frustrated. We had opportunities in the first game and didn't capitalize on them," said the Chiefs' coach. "I don't think we were mentally focused and ready to go, and they jumped on us. We made some silly errors."
Eureka was still comfortably ahead, 20-13, before Dee-Mack made its move. The Chiefs survived three match points before forcing a tie. However, the Hornets didn't buckle and came through.
"We had to get a pass up there so we could run whatever we wanted," said Courtney Heffren. "We had to stay mentally tough and just get a pass."
Amy Pineda had nine assists and four digs for Eureka, while Flowers and Heffren each had five digs. Ausmus contributed two blocks.
Carson Smalley paced Dee-Mack with eight kills, while Gruse had seven. Morgan Burr supplied 11 assists and Kassie Rich had 14 digs.
Eureka's celebration was somewhat subdued. Flowers and Heffren were members of the 2016 Class 2A state champions and realize there's still three more matches to win.
"It's a different team, but I feel we can go really far," said Flowers. "It's different people and a different skill level. We have to stay together and play our best."