BLOOMINGTON — In a first set that had a bit of everything Tuesday night, University High School’s volleyball team had Jessica McDowell when it mattered most.
After a kill by teammate Alayna Crabtree put U High up 25-24, McDowell’s thunderous kill gave the Pioneers a 26-24 win over Central Catholic. Top-seeded U High used that as a springboard to a 26-24, 25-18 semifinal victory in the Class 3A Central Catholic Regional.
The win on the Saints’ home floor sent the Pioneers into Thursday’s 6 p.m. championship match against fourth-seeded Manteno, which ousted No. 6 Prairie Central in the second semifinal, 30-28, 25-14.
“Jess had that experience last year and that’s really meaningful,” said U High coach Mike Bolhuis, whose team placed third in the Class 3A State Tournament last season. “She was in critical situations all last year.
"For her to see, ‘Hey, we need you to go get a kill for us,’ she knows that’s the expectation. She’s used to it. She wants the ball in those situations and she terminated well tonight.”
A 5-foot-6 senior, McDowell had five kills to complement six by Crabtree, a 6-2 junior.
U High (27-7) led 20-17 in the first set, but Central (21-15) roared back to tie it at 20-all. The lead seesawed until a kill by the Saints’ Bailey Coffman forged another tie at 24-all.
The Pioneers closed it out behind Crabtree and McDowell, who said last year’s tournament run is a benefit.
“After our season last year we know what to do and what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “Everyone was communicating and we were all being there for each other tonight. Even when the game was super close, we weren’t afraid to swing no matter what.”
Central opened an 8-4 lead in the second set, but a 15-4 surge that included three McDowell kills gave U High a 19-12 advantage. The Saints got as close as 23-18 before seeing their season end.
Mallory Bergbower had nine kills and Morgan Koch seven for Central, which also lost to U High in the Intercity Tournament.
“Both teams have good passers, good hitters, good setters. I thought it was going to come down to who made less mistakes and who could stay mentally focused on the game plan longer,” Central coach Teresa Ulrich said.
“Unfortunately we kind of petered out at the end. I think they let the nerves get to them instead of funneling those nerves as excitement. It didn’t really come down to one thing at the end. It just kind of came down to a breakdown in communication and focus on that goal.”
Macy Tongate had team-highs of 12 assists and three blocks for U High. Logan Murray led in digs with four and McDowell in aces with three.
Kate Moorman-Wolfe led Central in assists with 22, while Lauren O’Donnell had nine digs.
In the second semifinal, Manteno trailed 28-27 in the first set before scoring the final three points. Prairie Central fell behind 14-7 in the second set and could not recover.
Lindsey Hari paced Prairie Central (22-13) with eight kills. Merryn Krenz had 17 assists, Elly Haborkorn four blocks, and Lexie Rieck and Addison Casner 13 digs each.
“We were leading and then let them back a little bit. Then it was battle, battle, battle,” Hawks’ coach Kristen Hinz said of the first set. “The second game we didn’t play very smart, but we also didn’t have a lot of things go our way. The luck was not on our side in that game unfortunately.”