By Randy Whalen
The Joliet Central Gymnasium is one of the oldest and neatest in the state. It's huge and gaping with stands sitting up top and the feeling of playing below in a unique atmosphere.
It's also normally a big homecourt advantage for the Steelmen in any sport. Even when the gym is sectioned off like it is in volleyball. Except it wasn't on Thursday, Sept. 7 in a Southwest Prairie Conference volleyball match against Plainfield South.
Trailing 13-5 in the first set, Joliet Central fought back with a 7-0 run, which included a trio of aces from junior setter/opposite side hitter Sadie Johnson. The Steelmen seemed poised to tie the score and then, who knows?
Except the Steel Gym had other ideas. With the score sitting at 13-12, the Cougars dug a volley. The ball went up and into the rafters. It then bounced around the raised basketball hoop above the court as the Plainfield South players waited for it to come down.
But it didn't. The ball bounced around the raised backboard and just stayed there. So with the ball stuck up in the rafters, it was a do-over.
The Cougars then went on a 10-0 run of their own to pull away, In the end, they went onto a 25-13, 25-10 victory over Joliet Central.
"They hit it up there and the way it was developing, I think it would have been our point," Joliet Central coach Kevin O'Connell said. "We would have tied it and it was definitely a momentum switch."
Has that happened before?
"Yes, it's happened a few times during matches and a lot in practice," Johnson said. "I wish it wouldn't have and because of that, we didn't keep the rally going. But we still had the energy. I just wanted to get my team rallied up again and wanted to get the momentum back. Our team works very well this year."
Johnson, who is in her second varsity season, is a captain of this year's squad. She led the way with 11 digs, the three aces, and a block.
"It means that coach has that confidence in me," Johnson said of being a captain. "As a team, we just have to know when to stand our ground and when to pick it up."
But it was the Cougars (9-2, 1-1) who picked it up. Junior outside hitter Savannah Stepanek (8 kills, 3 digs) had three kills and a block and senior right hitter Sophia Pellegrini served a pair of aces in the 10-0 run.
"We had that nice run to make it close in the first set, but then we had some self-inflicted wounds," O'Connell said. All of a sudden the score was 23-12 and I was thinking, ‘Wasn’t it just 13-12?’ “The hard part is for our girls to get that out of their heads."
Just as it had in the first set, Plainfield South jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the second set. But this time there was no rally by the Steelmen (4-5, 0-2). The leads grew to 9-2, 12-3, and 19-4 as the Cougars coasted.
Senior right side hitter Sami Lanan led all players with 10 kills, including the match-winner. Sophomore setter Grace Malek (12 assists), senior setter Abby Hall (3 assists, 5 aces, 5 digs), and senior libero Kayla Baetzel (6 assists, 6 digs).
“We have had a nice start to the season,” said Plainfield South coach Kate Kendall, whose squad was 22-9 last year and has finished first in the Bremen Tournament this season. “We have a lot of returners and a lot of depth. We are pretty versatile. “We were able to pick up the tempo and keep it at our pace. Even between points, we got the ball to our server quickly and transitioned well. Playing fast like that helps keep us focused and not let up."
Seniors Angela Ayivor (block, kill) at middle hitter, Kayla Kursell (kill), Gabby Leal (block) at setter/opposite side hitter, junior libero Madison Mader (kill) at libero, and sophomore Alyssa Flood (ace, kill) at outside hitter, also contributed for Joliet Central.
"Plainfield South is a great serving team and a great defensive team," O'Connell said. "They move around so well on defense. We didn’t have many kills because they played great defense. “This is the level of competition and the speed we are going to play in this conference."
The Steelmen opened the season on Thursday, Aug. 24 with a 25-21, 25-16 home win over Bloom Township. Then on Saturday, Aug. 26, they defeated Thornwood 25-12, 25-22 before losing to the host Mustangs 25-13, 25-20 two days later at the Evergreen Park Quad.
On Thursday, Aug. 31, Joliet Central went on the road and lost the SPC opener 25-9, 25-12 to a very good Oswego team.
Then last weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 2, Joliet Central hosted the Peg Bryan Steelmen Invite and went 2-2. The Steelmen lost to East Aurora 20-25, 25-23, 15-10, defeated TF South 25-19, 25-21, fell in a close match 16-25, 25-14, 16-14 to Crete-Monee, and bounced back to topple Thornton 25-20, 25-21.
The Steelmen have already doubled their win total from last year, when they went 2-25.
“Our girls played hard, and they never gave up,” O’Connell said after the Plainfield South match. “They play hard, they work hard and they don’t shut it down if they are behind. The score doesn’t reflect the improvement I have seen from last year and even from the beginning of this year. This is a build-on season, and we have started building.”