Girls volleyball: Rock Falls seniors, coach Sheila Pillars end careers with third-place finish at state

Retiring Rockets coach, 8 seniors reach pinnacle of high school volleyball careers in final match

Rock Falls’ team captains Denali Stonitsch, center, and Claire Bickett receive the Class 2A Third Place trophy as head coach Shelia Pillars celebrates after the Rockets win against Carmi-White County in the Class 2A Volleyball Third Place match on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023 in Normal.

As far as endings go, it would be hard to script a better one than longtime Rock Falls coach Sheila Pillars and her eight seniors got this weekend at the IHSA Class 2A girls volleyball state tournament.

The Rockets rallied from a 12-5 deficit in the first set on their way to a 27-25, 21-25, 25-14 victory over the Carmi-White County Bulldogs in their third-place match on Saturday at CEFCU Arena in Normal.

It was a perfect send-off for Pillars, who finishes her 26-year coaching career at Rock Falls with a 642-283-5 coaching record, and it was a perfect send-off for seniors Claire Bickett, Denali Stonitsch, Sophia Moeller, Zoe Henson, Carli Kobbeman, Nicolette Udell, Taylor Reyna and Sophie Chavira.

“I think a little bit of luck. It’s Sheila’s last year,” Bickett said. “Who would’ve thought in the 26th season, the last one would’ve been the first time she’d gone to state? I think it was meant to be.”

An emotional Shelia Pillars pumps her first after giving a speak as her last game as head coach for Rock Falls after the Rockets win against Carmi-White County in the Class 2A Volleyball Third Place match on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023 in Normal.

Pillars couldn’t have imagined her coaching career ending like this, but she’s grateful it did.

“It’s amazing. Like I said, this is my last year coaching at Rock Falls High School. It’s bittersweet,” Pillars said. “I could not be more proud of the young ladies these girls are. They’re motivating. They’re determined. They’re role models. They’re smart. They’re just everything that you want your child to be. And to think that I have the opportunity to coach the 16 young ladies out here and to finish on a win and for me to walk away with a big trophy, they ended my career on the best note I could have possibly imagined.

“So I thank you all, it’s just been quite a ride.”

The Rockets, who finished 35-7 this season, had been close to that elusive state tournament appearance the last two seasons. In 2022, they lost to Genoa-Kingston in a sectional championship. In 2021, they lost to Montini Catholic in a supersectional.

Before this year, their last state tournament appearance came in 1975.

The Rockets believe they made it this season for two main reasons: their bond as a team and a little luck.

“I think it was our confidence. I feel like we played together for so long,” Udell said. “We just trust each other really well, and we know how each other plays. I feel like the connection, the bonding was just there.”

For Stonitsch and all of the seniors, it’s been a terrific run. The Rockets have won four straight regional titles along with two sectional titles over the last three years.

“It’s very special to us. Like everyone keeps saying, we’ve been playing together since like third, fourth grade,” Stonitsch said. “For us to be seniors and it’s our last year playing all together before we all go away, it’s just surreal. It’s just unbelievable. We’re super lucky to have this opportunity with each other.”

Pillars will miss the relationships with her players and dynamic with her assistants more than anything as she steps away from the program she helped lift to great heights.

“I’m really just super proud of the legacy that was built over the last 26 years. I know I’m the head coach, but I could not have done it without the people that have coached with me. Not under me, with me,” Pillars said. “They keep me calm. They keep me sane. They do everything that every assistant needs to do, and without them, especially Bree Naftzger, she’s been with me coaching-wise the longest, and Jolene Bickett, the two of them, [I could not have had this success]. We’ve made a great threesome I feel throughout the continuance of this whole entire journey. When I look back, it’s just the funny comments on the bench or the laughs or the bus rides. After the games, and going out to eat. All of the little stuff. Not even necessarily volleyball stuff, just the friendships that were made.”

Dan Wussow

Dan Wussow

Dan is a sports reporter for Sauk Valley News and Friday Night Drive. Previously, he wrote for The Post-Crescent in his hometown of Appleton, WI.