BLOOMINGTON — It was "steady as she goes" for the University High School volleyball team in the Class 3A Central Catholic Regional championship match on Thursday night at Cvengros Gym.
"After maybe the first five points of the first set, I thought we played as steady as we've played in a couple of weeks," said U High coach Mike Bolhuis. "Just real clean volleyball, control on the first contact, our setters doing a good job of distributing the ball and the hitters just being smart, going after it and hitting hard."
The combination added up to a 25-16, 25-16 win over Manteno and a spot for the Pioneers in next week's Class 3A sectional at Coal City. U High will face New Lenox Providence, the winner of Thursday's Rich East Regional title match in Olympia Fields.
Junior Isabel Schaefbauer led the U High setting contingent against Manteno with 18 assists and drew a rave review from Manteno coach Cheryl Davis.
"Their setters did a great job of mixing up their sets," Davis said. "They had us guessing and running and (positioned with) a lot of single blocks. You have to give credit to their setters. They ran a great offense and I think that was the difference in the match."
Alayna Crabtree, a 6-foot-2 junior outside hitter, had 11 kills to lead the Pioneers (25-7).
Manteno standout Kaycie Wenzel was limited to six kills for the Panthers while contending with a stout U High block.
"We haven't blocked like that in a while," said Bolhuis. "Nia Halman, our middle, kind of got us going with blocking in the first game and carried it on to the second. It makes the (opposing) hitters have to think a little bit more. They don't just have an open net to go hit."
After trading points early in the opening set, U High edged to an 11-7 lead when Halman's block ignited a scoring run that saw the Pioneers double up the Panthers at 16-8.
When Manteno regrouped after a timeout and pulled back within 16-13, a Halman kill launched the Pioneers on a 9-3 flurry to close out the frame.
Macy Tongate contributed a game-high four blocks for the Pioneers.
"I knew they had a very strong outside hitter (Wenzel) and we were running a defense where I block the line and in my head it was 'go get the ball, you have to get the ball,' " Tongate said.
The personal pep talk worked.
"Any time the ball was hit in her hands, it was a block," Bolhuis said.
Manteno won the opening point of the second set before U High scored the next five to take control and lead the rest of the way.
The Pioneers ended the match with a 5-0 run that included a solo block by Tongate that provided U High with match point before Schaefbauer brought it to a close with an ace.
"Back-to-back (regional titles) is such an exciting feeling," said Tongate. "Our main goal obviously is to get to state, but we've got to take it one game at a time."
Manteno ended its season at 31-6. A year ago, their season also ended against U High in a sectional title match with the Pioneers going on to finish third in the state finals.
"We knew what was coming (tonight) and we just tried to prepare for that the best we could," Davis said. "We knew it was going to be an uphill battle and that we were going to have to do everything well. I felt like we did play well, they were just a little stronger."