HOOPESTON -- Under the head coaching job of Kelli Vaughn, the Paxton-Buckley-Loda eighth-grade volleyball team reached the state tournament three times, the last time in 2010.
Even though the 2017 Panthers came one victory short of making it a fourth straight appearance, as Tolono Unity defeated PBL 21-25, 25-23, 25-21 in the IESA Class 3A Hoopeston Sectional, Vaughn said this team will hold a special legacy.
"They go down in history as one of the best groups I've ever coached," Vaughn said. "This is why I coach — because of kids like these kids right here. I love going to practice every day with them. I love being there on game day with them. Sometimes, you learn life lessons along the way, and it's hard to lose, but every kid walked out of that locker room with their head held high because they knew we left it all on the court, and that's all you can ask for.”
The three-set match was no surprise, Vaughn said.
It was PBL's eighth trip to sectionals, including the three state tournament trips.
“I don't ever remember going to a sectional championship and just having the other team dominate us. We were in this all day long. All week long, I felt like we had a chance, and I felt like we could win this match. My kids believed that, too. We worked hard," Vaughn said.
"If you get to this point, and everybody's pretty good, and we knew we were pretty good, too. We knew they were pretty good. We played hard. That's all you can ask. We gave this crowd a heck of a volleyball match. I don't care if you were from Unity or if you were from PBL. We gave a heck of a volleyball match to watch. We ended up on the wrong side of the win-loss column, but I'm just proud of them.”
PBL started game one down 17-11 to Unity (18-2).
“That was an athletic team that we faced. They were all bigger than us," Vaughn said. "If you looked out here as we came out tonight, you probably didn't think we had a chance because we're small.”
The Panthers battled back as a Maddy Foellner ace cut a PBL deficit to 19-16 before a Baylee Cosgrove kill tied the game at 20-20 before PBL took the lead at 21-20 and reclaimed it at 22-21.
From there, the Panthers scored three straight points as a Cosgrove ace made the score 24-21 and a two-handed kill by Bender clinched the game-one victory.
“We're mighty. Our kids had a lot of fight," Vaughn said.
An ace by Foellner made the score 6-3 in favor of PBL early in game two as the Panthers built an 8-4 lead. Unity tied the game at 8-8 before PBL scored four straight points thanks to two aces by Cosgrove and kills by Cosgrove and Jasmine Miles.
A dig by Cosgrove made the score 13-9 before a kill by Bender increased a PBL lead to 16-12.
After Unity cut its deficit to 17-16, PBL built its lead back up to four points as kills by Makenna Klann and Cosgrove and an ace by Foellner upped the Panthers' lead to 20-16. Makenna Klann tipped the ball over the net to make the score 21-17.
After the Rockets cut their deficit to 21-19, Cosgrove recorded a kill to make the score 22-19 before Unity went on a 4-0 run to take the lead at 23-22. Bender recorded a game-tying kill before the Rockets clinched the win with a block and an ace.
“That second set could have gone either way, but we fought," Vaughn said.
Aces by Makenna Klann and Bender helped the Panthers gain a 5-4 lead before two kills by Cosgrove helped make the score 7-6. After Unity claimed a 9-7 lead, Hannah Schwarz recorded a kill to make the score 9-8.
The Rockets increased their lead to 11-8 before PBL tied the game at 11-11. From there, two aces by Cosgrove gave PBL a 13-11 lead.
A tip by Makenna Klann helped PBL reclaim the lead at 14-13. After Unity sided out, Foellner recorded two hits that made the score 16-14 in favor of the Panthers.
After the Rockets reclaimed the lead at 18-16, PBL scored three straight points to take the lead back as an ace by Bender made the score 19-18.
From there, however, Unity scored six straight points to take control of the game at 24-19. Two straight points were scored by PBL before the Rockets clinched the match via kill.
“That girl just got on the serving row, and that happens sometimes," Vaughn said. "We struggled to get the pass up. Sometimes, that happens. We took both our timeouts, and you just struggle in that situation.”
Cosgrove finished the match leading the Panthers in kills with seven and in aces with four while Bender had four kills and two aces and Makenna Klann had 18 assists. Foellner had two kills, two aces and 17 service points while Makayla Klann had 106 passing points.
“Defensively, we've been great all year. Setting-wise, we've been great," Vaughn said. "Serving-wise, we've been great, and these last three weeks, our hitters have really come around. We struggled a little bit more tonight than we normally do.”
With Monday's loss, PBL ended its season with a record of 15-7.
“I told those kids in the locker room, 'When you walk out of here, you hold your heads high. You've had a great season,'” Vaughn said. “This is one of the best teams I've ever coached. “I'm just proud of them. They've been a great group. I'm going to miss them.
“I'm just so pleased with them. The kids have been great all season long. I've really enjoyed being around them. They have a lot of enthusiasm. They really love the game. I look for some big things from them in high school. I told them, 'you don't walk out of here and forget about volleyball between now and next fall. You've got to work hard.'”
Vaughn said she has high hopes for the future as the 2017 eighth-grade Panthers enter high school.
“I honestly feel like every kid on this team has a chance to play on the high school level. I know some of them played more than others down the stretch, but I've got kid who just haven't quite found their niche yet. In practice, some kids will put a kill down, or they'll have amazing serves. If they can continue to work and get some consistency, I see every single kid on this team having a chance to play at the high school level.," Vaughn said.
"I don't usually say that after every eighth-grade season, but for this team, I feel that way. I feel like if they play summer league and go to came and continue to work hard, they have a chance to be a part of our high school program, and I hope they choose to be. I know some of them are playing club volleyball after this season is over, and that just shows me that they want to continue to get better and they want to play at the next level.”
Tolono Unity def. PBL 21-25, 25-23, 25-21
For PBL (15-7), kills: Baylee Cosgrove 7, Jaden Bender 4, Makenna Klann 2, Maddy Foellner 2, Hannah Schwarz, Makayla Klann, Jasmine Miles; aces: Cosgrove 4, Bender 2, Foellner 2; assists: Makenna Klann 18; points: Foellner 17, Cosgrove 17, Makenna Klann 10, Bender 9, Schwarz 9, Makayla Klann; passing points: Makayla Klann 106, Makenna Klann 90, Bender 39, Cosgrove 24, Ella Curry 22, Foellner 19, Schwarz 19, Miles 10.