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After beating Iroquois West last Wednesday, the Paxton-Buckley-Loda varsity volleyball team appeared to be peaking at the right time. The Panthers had won seven of their last eight matches, with the lone setback coming in a close three-set loss at St. Joe-Ogden, which has lost just four times all season.
Then last Thursday night happened. Facing those old thorns in their side once again, the rival Spartans, in the Sangamon Valley Conference Tournament semifinals, the Panthers played some of their worst volleyball of the season — coach Kristin Oyer called it “horrible” — in a humbling 25-11, 25-8 loss that was quite the stark contrast to the inspired play PBL showed just a week prior against the same team.
So how did the Panthers respond? By stepping up and defeating St. Thomas More, 25-19, 25-14 in the third-place match of the SVC Tournament — the same Sabers team that won the SVC regular-season title and beat the Panthers in late September.
“We have more confidence,” Oyer said.
So if you’re counting, it’s almost 11 weeks into the season here in late October, and PBL still remains a bit of a mystery — a talented 18-8 team that can play with anyone in the area but often hasn’t quite gotten over the hump in big matches.
Luckily, neither the team nor other interested parties have to wait to find out what the Panthers are truly made of. Regional play has started, and it’s time for the PBL to prove itself, Oyer said.
“The pressure’s on. Somebody’s got to step up and be the leader on the court,” she said after Thursday’s match.
“We can’t lay down and die.”
PBL opened postseason play Tuesday night against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley match in the semifinals of the Hoopeston Area Regional, and Oyer was expecting a tough battle.
“They’re not going to be easy,” Oyer said. “We saw them early in the season, and they were good back then. They’re a very scrappy team on defense. They dig up a lot and try to wear you out. We’re just going to have to hit with more power or be able to hit with more power or be able to hit tips and shots to certain spots on the floor so they can’t dig it up.”
Still, it’s SVC foe Watseka that looms largest in PBL’s quest to fulfill its season-long goal of winning a regional championship. The Warriors, who set a school record for wins in a season with 28 entering the postseason, earned the top seed in the regional and are coming off a run in which they won the SVC Tournament title with a win against SJ-O. Second-seeded PBL beat Watseka in straight sets on Oct. 11, but Oyer warned the Warriors she observed in the conference tournament were a completely different one from that night.
“They didn’t play that well against us. So we’re going to have to be ready for all hands,” Oyer said of a potential matchup against Watseka.
“Right now, it’s anybody’s game — whoever’s on and makes the least amount of mistakes.”
Should the seeds hold to form, PBL and Watseka would meet Thursday at 6 p.m. in the title match at Hoopeston Area High School. Though her team has suffered a few tough SVC losses, Oyer thought the rugged conference slate made her team better.
“This is a very strong conference,” she said. “We’re really going to have to go into regionals with a mindset that we’re going to dominate.”
The keys, the coach added, are rather straightforward.
“Being able to play under pressure. You got to be able to handle that stress,” Oyer said. “It’s a big part, the mental part.”
Panthers take 3rd in SVC Tournament
PBL took third place in the SVC Tournament, which wrapped up with place matches on Saturday in Paxton. The Panthers beat St. Thomas More to earn third in what Oyer said was a match that would tell a lot about her team after it played poor in the semifinals last Thursday.
“I told them before the game to focus on getting the passes a little lower and a quicker offense could happen with that shorter, lower pass. So they really focused on that and getting their passes right to the setter,” Oyer said of the key to the win.
In that semifinal loss to SJ-O, Kortnie Schroeder led the way with five service points, 10 digs and four kills. Catlyn Ekstrom also had 10 digs, and Kayla Cowan had nine assists.
“They didn’t do anything that much better,” Oyer said of SJ-O’s play in the most recent matchup compared to the Oct. 13 match. “We played horrible. We had 11 errors in game one, and seven of those were hitting errors. In game two, we struggled with passing. We played like we’d never seen this team before.
“It wasn’t just one person where you could sub people in and take care of business. It was multiple people, and you can’t afford it against a team like that.”