WATSEKA — It was evident in the early going of Monday’s IHSA Class 2A Watseka Sectional volleyball semifinal between Herscher and Tolono Unity featured plenty of big-stage jitters from both teams, as a pair of uncharacteristic service errors plagued the Tigers and the Rockets committed just about every fault in the rule book.
But the Tigers quickly put those jitters behind them and got out to an early first-set lead that they would never fully relinquish in their 2-0 (27-25, 25-21) victory over the Rockets.
Rogers is gonna get this one down to give the Tigers a 25-21 win in the second and a sweep of the Rockets to advance to Wednesday's IHSA Class 2A Sectional championship against St. Joe Ogden. #tdjs pic.twitter.com/E5l7X0Nmfj— Mason Schweizer (@MSchweizerTDJS) November 5, 2019
With the win, the Tigers advanced to their first sectional championship and Sweet Sixteen since 1998, the only other such occurrence in school history, a goal coach Joel Huizenga said the team set out for long before the season began.
“I can’t say how proud I am of them,” Huizenga said. “We’re in that round of 16, only the second team in school history to make that round of 16.
“It’s huge and we are exactly where we said we wanted to be at the end of our summer workouts.”
Ruder was one of two normally-reliable servers that faltered on the opening two Tiger serves of the night, joined by Claudia Huston, who coincidentally finished as the top two servers in the area during the regular season (Ruder with 77 aces in the regular season, Huston with 74).
“I think it was just nerves — I was just trying to serve it into the court after (Huston) missed and it just happened that way,” Ruder said. “I had to serve the game point in that set and I gave every ounce in me to make sure that serve went in.”
Ruder’s last serve of the first set ended up sealing the 27-25 win for the Tigers, a set that featured plenty of ups and downs, but one that Herscher never trailed in after taking an early 4-3 lead.
While the Tigers had to get their serves straight in the early going, the Rockets committed a hodge-podge of faults, everything from double hits to running into the net and stepping over the half-court line.
Huizenga said that his team’s ability to capitalize on those errors early ended up being the key for Monday’s win.
“You don’t want to play catch up, so when a team gives you an opportunity, seize on that,” Huizenga said. “ I felt like tonight, that’s where we made a difference. We got up early, got a little tight there late, but in sectionals, you’re gonna have those nervous moments.”
Those tight moments came when the Rockets rebounded from a 21-14 deficit to tie the set at 24 and 25, before a Huston kill and Rockets hitting error on Ruder’s serve gave the Tigers the first game.
The Tigers opened up the second game with their usual personnel changes — Mya Johanson and Maddy Offerman seeing time at the middle block in relief of Joslyn Galeaz and Olivia Mendell on the right side in relief of Anna Cotter.
Those changes paid off for the Tigers. Johanson recorded four blocks, Offerman had six kills and two blocks and Mendell added a kill.
“A team cannot come back and make comfortable adjustments when you have a different right side hitter and different middle hitter from what they saw in game one,” Huizenga said. “It helps us out because they go from a left-hander (Cotter) to a right-hander (Mendell), and in the middle, the same thing — a taller middle blocker in Maddy compared to a more experienced middle blocker in Josllyn.
Additionally, the Tigers got the production they’ve come to depend on in the outside hitting tandem of Huston and Mady Rogers, who led the Tigers with eight kills. Her final kill was game point in the second set, on a feed from Huston.
Rogers said the differences in their games and their chemistry together makes them such a dangerous duo.
“We’re very different hitters, Claudia has a very powerful hit,” Rogers said. “We just work together to make each other better and when she gets that second ball, she sets it up, like she did on that last point.”
While the win brought the Tigers to heights rarely seen on the court, it also meant this specific group of 10 seniors reached a goal they set out for themselves before they entered high school after a successful middle school squad — reaching the sectional finals.
Rogers said that now that they’ve made it this far, there’s not much point in stopping now.
“We’ve been playing together since sixth grade and we’re finally reaching our goals,” Rogers said. “We’ve worked hard since the summer and we’re finally here, so we just have to keep pushing.”
Huston and Cotter each had four kills,while Huston also added an assist, three blocks and a team-high 10 digs. Rogers added seven digs to her team-high eight kills. Jordan Pierce led the Tigers with 10 assists and also had a block and four digs. Ana Rice had eight assists and a dig.
The Tigers will play for a spot in the Class 2A Chicago Christian Super-Sectional when they take on St. Joe-Ogden in the Watseka Sectional championship at 7 p.m.
Huizenga said that the Tigers told themselves over the summer that the Spartans would likely be the team they had to get past to reach new heights in the program.
“We ended summer workouts against them and said, ‘If the state aligns it, this is who we have to beat to reach the bigger goal,’” Huizenga said. “And here we are.”