METAMORA – A group of La Salle-Peru volleyball moms near the press table could not have summed up the Class 3A Metamora Sectional championship game between Sterling and L-P on Wednesday night any better.
Early in the second set, after the Golden Warriors had won the first set 25-21, the Cavaliers were celebrating an apparent point after a thunderous spike.
Only it wasn’t a point.
Sterling’s Lexi Rodriguez somehow dug up the slam, and the point ended with a kill by the Warriors’ Brook Borum.
“What can we do?” a mom asked rhetorically, and the other moms just shrugged.
As it turned out, there was nothing L-P could do. Sterling put on a clinic in rolling to a 25-21, 25-19 victory before a big crowd at Metamora High School.
Rodriguez could sense the tide was turning as she and her teammates put the defensive clamps on an L-P attack that had been moderately successful in the first set. Sterling had just two blocks, but got enough tips and digs to visibly frustrate the Cavaliers.
“Toward the end, you could tell they were rolling more and trying to be more tricky,” Rodriguez said. “They got us a couple of times, but once we started digging more balls, and then people would get fired up to get a kill, it really brought the energy to our side.”
Sterling (33-6) has been a team in transition all season long. It played the first 13 matches without Rodriguez at libero, as she was competing for the United States in an international competition.
It also was without its top hitter, Brook Borum, for 17 games due to a suspension. Sterling had a relatively pedestrian 19-5 record without both of those key players in the lineup.
When Borum came back in the middle of the Sterling Invitational, however, the team rattled off nine wins in a row without dropping a set, and looked to be an unstoppable machine.
Looking back, head coach Dale Dykeman described that period as players getting in their “comfort zone” – they were at full strength now and soundly beating anything in their path.
All that came crashing down, however, after a 25-18, 25-18 loss at Normal U-High on Saturday, Oct. 26. A team that had been riding high got a serious dose of reality.
“I think it definitely knocked us down a notch, where we needed to be,” junior setter Bree Borum said. “It gave us a reason to work harder at practice, and to realize that it’s going to be hard to get back to state. We really have to work for it. It’s not going to be as easy as we all thought.”
Rodriguez admitted some doubt crept into her mind after absorbing such a one-sided defeat when the team was at full strength.
“Afterward we were all questioning, ‘Can this really happen? Are we going to be able to make it back again?,’ just because of how bad that was and how at any moment we could play our worst and it might be over for us,” Rodriguez said.
In a nutshell, the Golden Warriors had done to them what they have been doing to other teams for the past several seasons. The team was a crossroads, according to Dykeman.
“We went down to U-High and really got smacked hard,” Dykeman said. “We were able to grind and make it a respectable score, but they really went at us hard and showed us – reminded us – what it was going to take to compete at the highest level in the state. We took that loss, and I think it was good for us. We had a coaches-players meeting. They had a players meeting and talked about who they wanted to be, what they wanted to look like, and what they needed to do to achieve what they wanted to.”
Since then, the Golden Warriors have responded like the champions they were just 363 days ago.
They beat Belleville Althoff in Normal in a Class 3A title game rematch, then have not dropped a set in winning Rock Island Regional and Metamora Sectional titles.
“Every facet of the game is being played harder, cleaner and faster,” Dykeman said. “We’ve seen grittier, more-determined practices, which is translating to the performances you’re seeing out here. We’re playing pretty good volleyball right now.”
Up next is the La Salle-Peru Supersectional on Friday, where Belvidere North awaits. The Golden Warriors handled the Blue Thunder in two sets back on Oct. 16.
A win Friday in La Salle and it will be a return trip to state for Sterling.
“We hope to make it back to state,” Bree Borum said after dispatching L-P on Wednesday, “and this is just another stepping stone on our path.”