WATSEKA — At the end of Herscher volleyball’s 25-19 loss in the first set of Wednesday’s IHSA Class 2A Watseka Sectional championship against St. Joseph-Ogden, senior libero Olivia Ruder had a simple message for her team.

“I got in the huddle and said, ‘If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging because that’s the only way we can go down,’” Ruder said. “We came back out there with no mercy, just relentlessness.”

That’s exactly what the Tigers did, as they ran through the Spartans 25-12 to force a decisive third set. But after an early 4-0 Tigers lead, the Spartans charged back and closed out the Tigers 25-23 to earn the sectional championship and end a storybook season in Herscher.

The Tigers had a 32-6 record, the school’s first regional title since 2012, a share of the Illinois Central Eight Conference crown and the school’s second-ever appearance in the Sweet Sixteen.

“I think it’s kind of a shock to our systems, but I couldn’t have asked for a better team to spend these last six years [with],” senior outside hitter Mady Rogers said. “We gave everything we could, fought to the end; it was a very good game, and we just accept the fact that it happened tonight.

“We can know we went down in history at the school in the Sweet Sixteen.”

There weren’t many hiccups for the Tigers in their first-set loss; they simply were outmatched by a Spartans team that hit over and around the Tigers’ block and dug up a handful of what normally would be easy kills from Herscher’s well-rounded offense.

“From the good parts of our schedule, we saw enough of that to know good teams are going to get good kills, good teams are going to stop great kill attempts,” Tigers coach Joel Huizenga said. “You just stay patient and keep working, and all of my hitters stepped up tonight and did a great job. All of them had kills to remember.”

Those kills started piling up in the second set, which began with a Claudia Huston ace and was all Tigers from that very first point. After scoring six of the first seven points in the game, the Tigers never let the Spartans trim the deficit to any closer than four points and cruised to a 25-12 win to force a decisive third set.

The Tigers finally were able to see those early kill attempts find the hardwood in true balanced fashion. Rogers had a team-high nine kills, and Huston and Maddy Offerman had eight apiece, as the trio was fed by setters Jordan Pierce (13 assists) and Ana Rice (11 assists).

Rogers said the Tigers’ ability to attack came from the passing of her teammates and her obligation to return the favor is to finish the point off.

“I know that my team can get the ball up and get it right to me,” Rogers said. “When it’s a big pressure point, I know I need to get it down for the team.”

After all of the energy early on seemed to lean in the Spartans’ favor, the Tigers entered the third set after playing arguably their best set of the year, strong play that once again started with a Huston ace in the third and an early 4-0 lead.

Huston compared the vibe of the third set Wednesday to last week’s regional championship against Beecher, another match in which the Tigers dropped the first set before rebounding.

“It was kind of like the Beecher match — we beat them in the second and didn’t know how the third would go,” Huston said. “I think we pulled off the second match pretty well and honestly didn’t know how the third would go because they were playing well, too.”

The third set went in Herscher’s favor early on, but the Spartans got some of that early mojo back and went on a tear, led by outside hitters Kennedi Burnett and Payton Vallee.

The Spartans pulled ahead 11-10 on a Tigers hitting error, and although they did allow a brief tie at 13, put it in cruise control until their 24th point.

And that’s when the Tigers’ resilience resurfaced. Faced with a 24-19 deficit and Ruder at the service line, the Tigers got kills from Rogers, Olivia Mendell and Offerman, along with a Spartans hitting error that made it 24-23.

But on Ruder’s next serve, the final serve of her prep career, after a back-and-forth volley, Burnett got behind a rocket of a shot the Tigers’ block got its hands on but couldn’t get quite back over the net, dropping just in front of the barrier to give the Spartans the win.

“I saw a bit of that [relentlessness] in the third set, but they obviously came back with that same attitude, and it was a clash,” Ruder said. “Kudos to [the Spartans]; they played a great game.”

The loss ended the high school volleyball careers of 10 Tigers seniors, a group that has enjoyed plenty of memories since first playing together as junior high students and a group Huizenga said he will struggle to say goodbye to.

“I can’t say goodbye — these girls mean the world to the program; they mean the world to me,” Huizenga said. “It’s just been a group for the ages, and they’ve been that way since sixth grade.”

The Tigers’ trip to the Sweet Sixteen was a mission they set out for when the season started, using the 2008 team’s Sweet Sixteen recognition in the gym as motivation.

“We’ve looked at the wall at school this entire year and set our goals really high,” Rogers said. “We fell short, but this is the best team I could ask for and the best girls.”

Just like Rogers and her teammates looked at that gym wall for inspiration this season, Huizenga said he hopes that will be the case for this year’s team in future generations.

“That’s what I want for them. I want them to be able to come back in 10 years and bring their daughters back and look and say, ‘I was a part of that,’” Huizenga said. “To have a daughter (senior right side hitter Lydia Huizenga) on the team and have that many seniors you have to say goodbye to makes it so much tougher.

“But they’re gonna look back, say they did a good job, and I’m happy about that.”

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