VARNA — Milford High School has been in the midst of its most successful sports run arguably in the school’s history. After the football team won its first state title last season, the Bearcats’ volleyball team rode a heat wave that started early in the regular season and sent them to their first-ever Elite Eight.
But that’s where the ride ended, as Milford ran into a beastly Illini Bluffs team in the IHSA Class 1A Midland Super-Sectional in Varna.
The Tigers advanced the next weekend’s IHSA State Finals in Bloomington and improved to a whopping 39-1 on the season, while the Bearcats’ season ended with a school record for wins at 30-5-1.
“There’s a lot of tears in the locker room on a night like tonight,” Bearcats coach Christy Duis said. “Whenever you lose, it’s the worst feeling, but I just had to say, ‘You’ll forget this, you’ll remember the good times, remember the wins.’
“Nobody’s taking away the regional championship, nobody’s taking away the sectional championship, the most wins in a season ... I said ‘I’m not ready to lose until we beat a better team,’ and that might have happened tonight.”
The Bearcats ran into a Tigers team that had only lost once in their first 39 matches, with 37 of their 38 wins coming in just two sets. But that didn’t intimidate the Bearcats, who went point-for-point with the Tigers for the early portion of the set.
The Tigers started finding their key players, specifically outside hitter Hannah Alvey, and slowly built a lead that was as large as six points.
But facing a 24-18 deficit in the first set, the Bearcats rattled off four points in a row to close the gap at 24-22 before an Alvey kill gave the Tigers first blood.
Bearcats middle hitter Caley Mowrey said that the team, despite only learning of their super-sectional opponent Wednesday, knew the Tigers had a strong attack, they just couldn’t match what the Tigers were doing.
“We knew they had really good hitters and were a really good team,” Mowrey said. “We came in prepared, we were ready and we didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for, but we had a great season.”
Duis said that after some mistakes plagued the Bearcats in the middle of the set, her team seeing the Tigers suffer a few mishaps gave them a new wave of confidence, an encouraging sign as the team’s headed to the second game.
“It was so encouraging. In between sets, it was just, ‘We’re right there, we’re right there, and as good of a team as they are, they’re human and mistakes too,’” Duis said. “It was good to see they were human, they made mistakes ... competitively, we were right there.”
The second set went much like the first. The two teams did a fair share of trading points early before the Tigers’ superior play eventually reigned supreme, as the defense never let Mowrey and the Bearcats offense get in much of a rhythm.
Mowrey said it would have been easy to get frustrated with the lack of attempts falling, but her and her team kept their heads on straight and stayed in a second set that they ultimately dropped 25-20.
“It’s so easy to get frustrated — I do it a lot but I try and stay up for my team, push through it and do the best we can,” Mowrey said. “And I think the team behind me does a great job of that. We get back up and play the next point.”
Despite the loss, the Bearcats, specifically seniors Jakki Mowrey, Kaylee Warren, Maya McEwen and Sam Conley can look back on the best season of volleyball Milford has ever seen.
“It’s an amazing thing to have the 2019 sectional and regional champs up in the gym, to have my name up on two balls in a trophy case that will be there forever,” Jakki Mowrey said. “I’ll be able to tell my kids someday that I was a part of Milford history with amazing teammates and an amazing atmosphere to be in.”
The senior outside hitter added that while the sting of ending her high school volleyball career was there, she still has a couple more sports to round out her senior year, basketball and softball, where she will be joined by many of her volleyball teammates.
“It’s kind of an awful feeling, I just want to put the jersey on one more time like everyone else does, just be able to get on the floor one more time,” she said. “I didn’t want to take it off when we got into the locker room, but I know that this step in my life is over and now just head on to basketball and softball.”
Caley Mowrey had seven kills to lead the Bearcats and tied McEwen with three blocks apiece. Jakki Mowrey had 14 assists. Warren had 10 digs and a pair of aces.