NORMAL — Belvidere North has been chasing the ghost of Hononegah for most of the season. Most conference wins. Best state finish.
“Now, it’s just us,” senior setter Jayden Flynn said.
Belvidere North (39-2) had already broken Hononegah’s NIC-10 record for most volleyball wins in a season and has now at least matched Hono’s 2006 Class AA runners-up. North could be the first state champ if it beats LaGrange Park Nazareth at 5 p.m. on Saturday, instead of being the second NIC-10 trophy holder.
“It’s something you think about your whole career, but never really think it’s possible,”Coach Amanda (Carlson), Hicks was married in May. North defeated Normal West 25-18, 25-17 Friday at Redbird Arena. “Once you get here, it’s still unreal.”
Nazareth (29-7), beat Joliet Catholic 25-21, 25-15.
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Normal West’s 11 kills were led by Averie Hernandez (6’2″, outside hitter), who has signed with Northwestern.
“I don’t think you could limit her,” Hicks said. “You’ve got to let her do her thing when she is in the front row and try to capitalize when she was in the back row. And sometimes you just have to say good shot and go on to the next point.”
Although North had to deal with Hernandez, Normal West had to deal with four Division-I recruits from North and one D-II candidate. This proved to be even harder. Hernandez was the only Normal West player to have more than two kills. Rachel Scott had eight kills for North, Grace Betke had seven, Kaitlin Leider had six, and Ava Irvin had six.
“They are all great players,” Hernandez said.
Normal West has too many great players to keep up with. North kept the pressure on, especially since they were constantly under pressure.
“They run a very fast offense,”Kelsey Mueller, Normal West coach, said. “That makes it hard to defend.
“We erred a little bit more than we normally do. And Belvidere North doesn’t err much.”
North had 19 more kills than errors (29 to 10) to Normal West’s plus-11 mark (19 to eight).
North won with more power than precision. Betke, who is only 5-6, was a major part of that, with her seven kills.
Grace Betke, a 5-foot-6 outside batter who will be a defensive specialist for Texas Tech, had seven kills.
“I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense to me in my brain,”The 6-foot-2 Scott agreed. “Watching her, she jumps so high. I can’t believe how high she jumps.”
“Bad set, good hit,” said Jayden Flynn, who had 24 assists for North — six more than Normal West’s entire team.
“There never is a bad set with Jayden,” demurred Betke.
North was leading 18-17 in set one when Scott began a dominating stretch with an ace, a block kill, and an ace. The game ended at 7-1.
“Rachel really took over,”Irvin stated. “She did a good job of coming out strong and taking care of what we needed to get done.”
North led 13-10 in the second set before going on a 10-2 push to take a commanding 23-12 lead.
Coach Hicks talked of it being surreal to be in the state title game, but the Blue Thunder — who have lost only five sets all season — have known for a long time they belong here. Many of them were seniors on a team that lost the third set to Sterling in Supersectionals by 28-26. This was the only set Sterling lost in the entire postseason. At state that year, Sterling’s Class 3A champs never even gave up 20 points in a game.
“We knew we were so close when a reporter told us our game against them was basically their state championship game,”Scott said. “When they came down here, they just blew everybody out. We could have made it.
“And then the next year we had COVID in the spring and didn’t have a chance to compete (when there was no state tournament). That made everything feel so much longer. To finally have the chance down here, it’s unreal.”
North walked out of court in matter-offact fashion after beating Normal West. There was a reason.
“We’re not done yet,”Scott said. “We still have tomorrow. That’s when it will really count. You will see a really big celebration then.”
Finals of IHSA Class 3A Volleyball State Finals
Redbird Arena, Normal
LaGrange Park Nazareth Academy def. Joliet Catholic, 25-21, 25-15
Belvidere North def. Normal West, 25-18, and 25-17
Third: Joliet Catholic vs. Normal West at 4 p.m.
Title: LaGrange Park Nazareth Academy vs. Belvidere North, 5:30 p.m.