NORMAL — Short on enrollment numbers but long on talent, experience and tradition, the Hartsburg-Emden High School volleyball team finds itself back in a state championship match for the third time in a little over a decade.
With a bit of swagger in their step and efficiency in their swing, the Stags disposed of Decatur St. Teresa, 25-17, 25-14 in the Class 1A state semifinals Friday at Redbird Arena.
The victory sets up a showdown with powerful Newark in Saturday's 10:30 a.m. title match.
"It doesn't get any better than this," said veteran Hartem coach Jennifer Hayes. "We've had a goal all season to be in the championship match. Everybody's good once they get here. You just hope things fall your way and today they did."
The Stags' volleys across the net consistently fell their way with Anna Hayes, the coach's daughter and a University of Memphis recruit, leading the way with 17 kills, matching the team total for St. Teresa.
"(Hartem) didn't make many mistakes," said St. Teresa coach Brad Dalton. "We were a little out of sorts and got caught up in the moment a little bit. A lot of it had to do with Hartsburg. They were ready to go. They were definitely the aggressor and the (St. Teresa) kids dug themselves a hole. We weren't ready to fight today."
Anna Hayes, a 6-0 outside hitter, sandwiched a block between a pair of kills as the Stags grabbed the lead out of the gate in the opening set. St. Teresa, led in the match by the six kills of DaeLin Switzer and seven assists of Lexie Huck, regrouped to gain an 8-8 tie before Hartem steadily pulled away.
After relinquishing the opening point of the second set with an attack error, the Stags once more roared to the front and were leading 5-2 when St. Teresa libero Grace Buxton went down with an injury.
"We had several hitting errors in the first set and then our libero went down," Dalton said. "We just didn't regroup fast enough to compete with them. When we collected ourselves we were down 10."
The Stags (36-4) took their first 10-point lead of the match at 17-7 in the second set and coasted into the title game.
"This has been my dream forever and it's just, like, awesome that it's coming true," said Anna Hayes, who added seven digs to her kill total.
Izzy Classen was Hartem's digs leader with 10. Grace Beekman had 15 assists to go with seven digs and five kills.
"You have to have everybody contribute and they did that," Jennifer Hayes said. "That's what makes this team so fantastic. If you don't have six people on that court playing together, it's not going to work in the game of volleyball."
A 24-year veteran at Hartem, Hayes values the togetherness of a school with an enrollment of 75, as well as the closeness of a small community.
"I've had these girls since birth," she said. "They're in the same class, we're in the same town, all of the parents are friends. It's more than just a team, more than just a community. It's a family. To see what we've done together is just incredible."
Hayes has coached five Hartem teams to the state finals with a runner-up finish in 2014 that followed a Class A state title in 2006.
Newark (38-2) cruised past Grayville in Friday's other 1A semifinal. Hartem and Newark met earlier this season in a tournament at Mount Pulaski, with the Norsemen winning, 25-12, 25-23.
"You want to talk about a bad night, that was a night where everything went wrong," Jennifer Hayes said. "It was horrible. We didn't play well."
She expects a much better performance Saturday.
"I think you have two great teams in the championship and I think it's going to be some great 1A volleyball," she said.
Newark coasts to title game: Newark received 12 kills and eight digs from standout Madi Malone in crushing Grayville, 25-7, 25-15. The Norsemen hit .361 with only five attack errors. Olivia Nelson dished out 20 assists with Meggie Scott contributing 13 digs.
Grayville (27-10) had 11 kills and 18 attack errors and will face St. Teresa (28-11) in Saturday's 9 a.m. third-place match.