CARY – Cary-Grove’s volleyball team didn’t have the most promising start against Vernon Hills, whiffing on its first three swings and trailing 10-3 in the first set of Tuesday’s Class 3A Cary-Grove Regional semifinal.
The Trojans hung in there, however, before taking their first lead at 17-16 and eventually taking down the Cougars, 25-23, 25-13.
Sixth-seeded C-G moves on to face fourth-seeded Lake Forest (24-11) in the regional title match at 6 p.m. Thursday. The Trojans (21-15) are going for their second straight regional championship after winning one in 2019, the last year the IHSA postseason was held.
Tuesday’s win didn’t come easy.
“We just tried to go back to basics,” C-G coach Patty Langanis said in reference to how the Trojans struggled to find their rhythm in the first set. “The state tournament, you never know how teams are going to react to the first match. Vernon Hills came out swinging and playing big defense, and they didn’t make a single error.
“I think we just got a little caught up in it. Once we started getting our middles and our blocking going, I thought we were able to get our composure back and settle in nicely.”
Senior middle blocker Mya Bajramovic led the Trojans with six blocks and five kills, senior outside hitter Nikki Novak had five kills and an ace, and junior setter Isabelle Strader added 21 assists and two blocks.
Junior libero Alexes Koenig had 10 digs, and Juliana Chapman and Tricia Kennedy had four kills apiece.
Cary-Grove and Vernon Hills (19-17) were tied at 19, 21, 22 and 23 in the first set. A kill by Strader and block by Bajramovic gave the Trojans the crucial first-set victory after trailing for most of it.
Novak had a key kill late in the first set after the Cougars took a 22-21 lead. Novak, a four-year varsity player, had not started on the varsity team until this year.
“Nikki’s that undersized outside,” Langanis said. “She’s had to fight for every point, nothing comes easy. When she gets those big kills, it really lights the team up. Seeing her swing high off hands, it’s so fun to watch. She adds a lot of nice aggressiveness for us.”
Novak said she came into Tuesday’s match a little timid.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Novak said. “The past week I’ve been really low. I haven’t had my best games, but I’m starting to get back into it, and I feel like I’ve been doing much better. Coach always says she’s a big fan of me, and I just wanted to show her that I can do it.”
After leading for most of the first set, Vernon Hills never got a lead in the second set, as C-G jumped out to a 5-1 lead and later went on a 9-1 run for a 17-8 advantage before the Cougars took their first timeout.
Vernon Hills was playing without its top hitter, senior Erica Bunning, who was on the bench after injuring her ankle last week.
Libero Ellen Amjadi posted nine digs, outside hitter Alexa Cieslinski had five kills and three blocks, Caylie Zahnow had four kills, and Val Ramirez and Morgan Hart (two blocks) had two kills apiece. Brooke Bedell added two aces for Vernon Hills.
“We had a really good game plan. We’ve seen a lot of tape on them and knew what would work and what wouldn’t work,” Vernon Hills coach Chris Curry said. “Our problem a lot of the year has been consistency with our energy. When a couple of things go wrong, how can we turn that around?
“We don’t have a lot of big bangers, and we don’t see blocks as big as [C-G’s] very often. It snowballed a little bit on us and we got nervous.”
Vernon Hills graduates four (Bunning, Victoria Lukyan, Claudia Zawlodzki and Bedell). Curry said it took his team awhile to find an identity this year. The Cougars ended the season with 19 wins for the second year in a row (not counting the COVID-19-shortened spring).
“Hopefully, we come back next year and we start at this place,” he said. “This year was sort of disheveled, and we didn’t really know our identity. It took awhile to come together.”
For the Trojans, confidence will be key Thursday against Lake Forest.
“I think we were nervous,” Bajramovic said of Tuesday’s uneven start. “We just kind of took a breath and talked about what we needed to fix. We brought up our energy. We’re gonna have a really good practice [Wednesday] and just come in with a lot of confidence.”