NORMAL — Where some might see certain defeat, a good coach sees possibilities, which brings us to Mike Bolhuis.
The second-year coach's 28-10 University High School volleyball team appears to be the underdog in its Class 3A state semifinal against 39-1 Belleville Althoff at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena.
The Crusaders, who suffered a three-game setback against Belleville West, are on a 20-match winning streak. They and U High have two common opponents. Althoff beat Breese Mater Dei (twice) and Wheaton St. Francis, both of whom topped U High.
"Obviously, with a record like 39-1, they are a good team, a very consistent team," Bolhuis said. "The bright spot we keep bringing up is that anytime we play a team that's pretty offensive, we tend to step up our game defensively."
Bolhuis remembers his team did just that during a 22-25, 25-23, 25-17 win over Naperville North.
"They were just extremely offensive," he said. "It gives us a little bit of an edge on defense when we expect that.
"In order to beat a team like (Althoff), you have to do a really good job on defense. You've got to have a low error count."
U High libero Amber Juarez doesn't believe won-loss records accurately predict future outcomes.
"We've grown a lot as a team as the season has gone on so I don't think our record is a reflection of what our team has become," she said. "We tend to play to the level of the team we are playing, especially if they are higher."
The goal is to hang with Althoff until it's 20-20 in each set.
"At that point, we think that anything can happen," said Bolhuis, who is impressed by Althoff setter Louise Comerford, a left-handed 6-footer bound for Miami of Ohio.
"She plays six rotations. She attacks quite a bit on second contact. She runs a fast-tempo offense. Every hitter is pretty capable as well."
The Crusaders' kill leaders are Karinna Gall (293), Addie Burris (221) and Katie Wemhoener (214).
"I think we just need to be able to play our game and find holes in their defense," said U High senior middle hitter Addy Loeffler. "We know that their setter is very good, but one player can't carry a whole team. We're going to have to pick on different people and try to find flaws in their defense."
A 6-foot-1 sophomore, Gall is trying to develop a killer instinct.
"She is like that friendly giant," said seventh-year Althoff coach Sara Thomas-Dietrich. "She gets that big kill and then she kind of feels bad if she hits the other team. I'm like, 'Karinna, you've got to find that animal inside of you!'"
Wemhoener is the daughter of former Illinois State basketball player Todd Wemhoener (1990-94). Across the net will be U High's Isabel Schaefbauer, the daughter of former ISU basketball player Skipp Schaefbauer (1996-98). Schaefbauer's mother, Nicole (Coates), played for Princeton's 1990 Class A state champions before playing at Notre Dame.
Althoff's one loss proved essential.
"People ask me what the best thing to happen this season was and I can say that one loss," Thomas-Dietrich said. "We took it as a learning experience to help us bounce back and refocus."
If any state team has a home-court advantage, it's U High, which is on an 11-match winning streak. Bolhuis and the Pioneers have joked about walking to the Final Four.
"We've got a bus," he said. "We're going to go out to eat beforehand. We're excited about the chance to represent our community. We're hoping to get a pretty good showing out to support us."
An 11-time state qualifier, Althoff finished third in 2A a year ago while the Pioneers lost to Lincoln (25-23, 24-26, 25-22) in their 3A regional opener.
"They've done everything in their power to work hard and make sure that wasn't going to happen (again)," said Bolhuis, whose team will face Arlington Heights St. Viator (29-11) or Chicago Resurrection (33-8) in Saturday's 4 p.m. third-place match or 5:30 p.m. title match.