Deceptively close

SENECA — The 25-22, 25-23 final score did not do justice to the prolonged stretches of dominance, especially at the service line, that Seneca displayed against McNamara Tuesday evening.

In the first game, the Lady Irish got five straight aces from senior outside Aspen Stuedemann — something she said she has never done in eight years of volleyball — to blow open a 6-6 deadlock. In the second, Seneca rode three-point service trips from Madison Wyss and Danielle Hauch and another two points from Chelsie McCormick to a 22-10 lead.

Of course, the final score may have done those stretches full justice had Seneca not allowed McNamara to go on a 13-3 run late in the second game. McNamara's 10th hitting error of the match ended a run of five straight points served up by Fightin' Irish outside Kylisha Hunt and sent the hosts into Thursday's 7 p.m. championship match at the Class 2A Seneca Girls Volleyball Sectional.

"We knew even at the end that they can come back. They're capable of making a run," Seneca coach Karen Raney said of the Fightin' Irish. "Especially with their top servers coming up for them at the end. No. 3 (Taylor McKammon, who went to the line with the Seneca lead at 22-11) led them at the regional.

McKammon netted four points for McNamara before the teams traded sideouts. That gave Corinne O'Connor a crack for the Fightin' Irish, and she served up a quick ace before a Stuedemann kill made it 24-16 Seneca. Hunt countered with a sideout kill to give herself the serve, and two Seneca hitting errors and two Taylor Shannon kills helped Hunt whittle the Seneca lead down to a single point before the Lady Irish escaped.

"I'm just glad, because we have a bad habit of not taking it all when it's there for us to take," Stuedemann said. "(McNamara) put up a good block, and when some of those kills we were getting early weren't there, we struggled a little bit."

Stuedemann's five-ace run came after her own sideout kill tied the score at 6-6 in the opening game. She actually came inches from a sixth ace, but her final serve of the run was just a bit deep and landed out of bounds. Seneca led the rest of the game, though McNamara closed the gap to one point at 18-17 and again at 19-18.

"That's the first time I've done something like that all season — or ever, actually. ... It was awesome," Stuedemann said of her service run. "The first game, we knew we had experience over them — they don't have any seniors — and once we got the momentum, we just basically had to go with it."

Seneca finished with 14 aces for the match, with Hauch and Wyss totaling three each. McNamara did have fewer service errors (four) than Seneca (nine), but it had only five aces.

"We came in with the knowledge that if we served the ball to the places we wanted it to go, their passing would struggle to handle that, and we executed well," Raney said.

Stuedemann had seven kills and Pihl added five to lead the Lady Irish. Wyss was the team's leader in assists with 11. Kayla Haines had three kills and four assists.

Only Watseka, a 25-19, 29-31, 28-26 winner over El Paso-Gridley in Tuesday's other semifinal, stands in the way of the Lady Irish and their first sectional championship since 1985.

"This is a big step, obviously, for us," Raney said. "Our players have aspirations of winning a sectional and this first step is difficult. Thursday will be even more so."