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TOLONO — After setting a school record for most victories in a season with 25, PBL needed one more on Thursday to set yet another milestone.
The milestone is one the volleyball program hasn’t achieved since 2004 — a regional title.
In Game 1 of the Tolono Unity Regional championship match, PBL looked like the team that set a school record for most wins in a season.
Thanks to four kills from Amanda Ypya and three from Kailey Kleinert and Kandace Hofer, the Panthers won the first game over St. Thomas More by a score of 25-17.
In Games 2 and 3, however, PBL hit a wall built by the Sabers’ Lexi Wallen and Louisette Lukusa.
The Panthers were unable to pull through, as their record-setting season ended with a 17-25, 25-15, 25-16 loss to STM.
“It’s just hard because we saw how we could play in Game 1 of that, and we should have just continued that,” PBL head coach Kristin Oyer said. “We got stuck — had some bad serves at crucial times. These girls know how they can play and they know that they should still be playing. That’s the hardest part because we know we could have gone further if we had played our game all three games.”
After the Sabers scored the first point of Game 1, PBL asserted its dominance with five straight points to take a 5-1 lead it would not surrender for the rest of the game.
The Panthers (25-6) scored the third point on a Hofer kill and the fifth on a kill recorded by Kleinert.
After STM scored two straight points — the second of which was tallied on a Wallen ace — to cut the lead to 5-3, Kleinert went in for the kill to give PBL the side-out point.
The Panthers another two-point surge by the Sabers with a 7-1 run that featured two kills from Ypya, a Genzel ace and a kill from Hofer and Kornie Schroeder each before STM called timeout with a 13-6 deficit.
Schroeder recorded another kill following the timeout, as PBL would gain its biggest lead of the match at 15-6. Ypya tallied two consecutive kills to cap a Panther run that equaled their biggest lead at 23-14.
Ypya scored another kill to end an STM 3-0 run and increase PBL’s lead to 24-17 before it scored the game point.
The Sabers lost the first game despite two aces from Wallen and Regan Kelley each.
“In the first game, we came out a little tentative and maybe a little scared,” STM head coach Brad Dalton said. “We didn’t execute our offense very well tonight. I think a lot of that had to do with nerves.”
In Game 2, PBL gained a 3-1 lead with two kills from Kleinert and another from Hofer. That would be the last time the Panthers would hold a lead in the match.
The Sabers went on an 8-1 run to take a 9-4 lead, as Kelley recorded a kill that barely landed inbounds on PBL’s far side for the go-ahead, and STM’s fifth, point.
Two kills from Ypya cut a four-point Sabers lead to 15-13 before STM went on a 10-2 run that included six consecutive points to end Game 2.
“After that (first game), we just told them it’s a volleyball match and you’ve just got to go out and play,” Dalton said. “So they picked it up and we got going. The kids blocked well and played good defense and they kept the emotion of the match going.”
Thanks in big part to the efforts of Wallen and Lukusa, STM led throughout Game 3.
Wallen tallied two kills as the Sabers scored the first three points of the game.
She also recorded kills to give the Sabers leads of 10-4 and 13-7.
After PBL scored two points to cut STM’s biggest lead of the third game (21-12) to seven, Wallen made up the points with two consecutive kills to increase her team’s lead to 23-14.
Wallen finished the match with a match-high 15 kills. Lukusa added five kills and recorded four blocks.
“We tried to key on Wallen and Lukusa,” Oyer said. “We knew Wallen would hit wherever she was at — front row, back row. Wallen’s just a very, very good player. She’s a nice hitter. She has a lot of power. She was just very hard to stop.”
The Sabers were without the services of Lukusa when they lost to PBL 25-17, 25-21 in Paxton on Sept. 27.
“We knew Lukusa was back,” Oyer said. “They didn’t have her the first time we played them, so we knew we had to make a few adjustments, and I thought we did pretty well with her. It was just that her defense really helped them a lot. We had problems popping the ball up off that block.”
Kleinert finished the match leading PBL in kills with 14 and added two blocks.
Kayla Cowan was credited with 26 assists. Schroeder recoreded 10 digs while Hofer scored 13 service points.
The Sabers’ Hannah Murray helped engineer her team’s offense with 63 assists.
Kelley and Katie Kulas each recorded three kills for STM, as Kulas also had three blocks. Katie Gillette and Brooke Plotner contributed 15 and eight digs, respectively.
For STM, Thursday’s regional championship victory was its fifth in as many years.
“It feels good,” Dalton said. “We were coming into this season with very little experience. We had a little bumpy road to start the season. We played a lot of kids to develop the program. Then in the last three to four weeks, we settled in on a lineup and built on our team chemistry and brought it together at the right time. We’re peaking.”
The Sabers face Decatur St. Teresa in the St. Joseph-Ogden Sectional semifinals on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“It was just a great team effort tonight,” Dalton said Thursday. “These kids have worked so hard all season long, and they deserve to celebrate tonight.”
PBL's season ends after numerous accomplishments
TOLONO — All of PBL’s accomplishments this season provided little, if any, solace for its loss to St. Thomas More in the Tolono Unity Regional championship match on Thursday.
In fact, according to PBL head coach Kristin Oyer, those accomplishments have — in a way — made Thursday’s loss feel more painful.
“They’ve had a really good season, but that makes it even harder because we know we should still be playing,” Oyer said.
Still, Oyer said, PBL’s volleyball team should be proud of its accomplishments this season.
For instance, the Panthers’ 25-14, 25-14 win over Unity in the regional semifinals on Tuesday, Oct. 23 broke the school record for most victories in a season originally set in 2001.
“Getting the record with wins is huge,” Oyer said.
Although PBL could not get its first regional championship since 2004, it accomplished something not achieved since that year: a Sangamon Valley Conference regular season title.
The Panthers achieved that feat after beating St. Joseph-Ogden 25-19, 25-19 in its Senior Night match on Oct. 11.
“The best game I’ve ever seen was that Senior Night with St. Joseph-Ogden,” Oyer said. “I told them to always keep that match in your mind of how your season was because that was one of the best matches we’ve seen. That’s hard because we can dominate like that when we put our minds to it. That’s a memory of a match that I’ll always remember.”
Thanks to that victory and the 7-0 conference record that came as an end result, Oyer said, the PBL players of this year will be forever commemorated on one of the banners in the school’s gymnasium.
“I told the girls this is one of the best seasons that I’ve ever seen as a coach,” Oyer said. “Getting conference champs, you have to play hard the whole season to win that. When they get that put on the banner, they’ll always have that to look at when they come back and play in that gym. For juniors and seniors, when they come back, they’ll know that they made a difference because that’s going to be up there. They’ve had some great accomplishments and made a lot of memories.”
For five members of PBL’s volleyball — Kayla Cowan, Kandace Hofer, Kaylee Genzel, Kortnie Schroeder and Amanda Ypya — this record-breaking, well-accomplished season would be the last of their high school careers, as these seniors will depart due to graduation.
“They’re very good role models,” a tearful Oyer said on Thursday. “It is more than just volleyball. They just set an example for these younger girls that just goes above and beyond what I’ve seen.”
Oyer said she did not have to say much to her senior players in the locker room following Thursday’s loss.
“All the other juniors talked a lot in the locker room after tonight,” Oyer said. “You should just see the respect and camaraderie. It’s just amazing.”
With this group of seniors departing, junior Kailey Kleinert, who led PBL with through two regional matches, will be expected to play a huge role for the Panthers’ offense in her middle hitter position.
“We’re defintiely going to utilize Kleinert in that middle,” Oyer said. “We just have to get passing where it needs to be, and with (junior liberos) Jori (Maynard) and Randee (Newsom) coming back, I think it’s still possible to keep that going with the offense and use that combination.”
Oyer said the departures of setter Cowan as PBL’s offensive engineer and outside hitters Hofer and Schroeder, the team will have to depend on its underclassmen to step into the role.
“We’re really going to hurt without Kayla (Cowan), so junior and sophomore setters are really going to have to step it up,” Oyer said. “We’re losing a lot of power, too, on the outside, but we’ve got (Haley) Stagen and we’ve got Kennedy (Witheft). Janel (Flanigan’s) a utility player. She can play all the way around anywhere. We need her. There’s talent coming back, but there’s a lot of talent leaving.”