ROCK FALLS – Many of the Rock Falls Rockets volleyball players who took the court in Thursday’s Big Northern Conference Tournament championship match weren’t in high school yet when Rockford Lutheran ended their season last school year in the sectional semifinal round.
Like last year, however, the Rockets’ season this year came to an end the same way Thursday, as Lutheran handed them a three-set loss, 22-25, 25-22, 25-21, at Tabor Gym.
However, unlike last year, Rock Falls (18-3) had almost an entirely new crew on the floor – which included six freshmen – who gave an experienced Crusaders team all they could handle in the season finale, and that’s what Rockets coach Sheila Pillars drove home to her players after the loss.
“For them to come in on a moment’s notice and play like they do, and there’s a couple of rotations where I have five freshmen and a junior, I am so proud of the fact that they’ve handled a seasoned team like that, the way they did,” Pillars said. “Yes, we fell short, in our own right, but I just couldn’t be any more proud.”
Lutheran (14-5) finished in fourth place in Class 2A the previous season and brought back nearly everyone from that squad, including senior Lauren Spangler, who drilled down 16 kills to lead all hitters. With her team up 22-21 in the deciding set, Spangler notched her final kill and served a point to set up match point. She ended the night with a tennis-like let serve at the middle of the net that the Rockets couldn’t quite react quickly enough at to decide the championship.
“Once we lose a game, it’s kind of like a kickstart into the way we play,” Spangler said. “We came back into it, knowing that we are OK taking one point at a time instead of tumbling down into a downward spiral.”
Rock Falls won the regular-season meeting between the two on April 1 in two sets, and made it three in a row, trailing only after Spangler’s first kill. Rockets junior Cara Goff had three kills in her team’s first seven points, and the Rockets’ lead reached as high as six at 13-7 after an ace by freshman Nicolette Udell. Lutheran tied it up three times at 15, 16 and 21 before freshman Claire Bickett’s left-post kill went untouched for a one-point lead, which junior Mallory Pinske upped to two with a block on Spangler at the left pin.
“Our first set we just came out with so much energy,” Bickett said. “We were rolling, we came out hot and we were just going at that point, but the next two sets we came out to a slower start, and it just hurts when you go down right away 3-0 [in both]. The energy kind of had its up and downs in the second and third sets.”
Lutheran wound up with six service errors in the first set, but cleaned those up in the second and third sets and didn’t have much of a problem with that the rest of the way. The Crusaders didn’t trail throughout much of the middle set until a hitting error put the Rockets ahead 21-20. Kylie Wilhelmi and Jaycie Sheean connected on back-to-back kills for a brief lead, but another Udell kill tied it at 22. Spangler’s eighth kill gave the Crusaders the lead again, Sheean served up an ace, and Spangler put the set away with her first successful tip from the left pin.
Like in the second set, the Rockets couldn’t get a lead despite tying a few times. They got as close as 18-17 before another Spangler kill, a Rockets lift violation and a Liz Ulrich block of a Pinske spike gave the Crusaders a four-point lead. Rock Falls got to within one point once more at 22-21 after a Pinske kill from center net before Spangler closed the night with her final kill and ace.
“We came here earlier in the season, and it was a good game but we didn’t feel like we played as well as we could have,” Crusaders coach Jordan Robison said. “Just wanting to win real bad, and wanting to be able to win the tournament in such a strange year, it just took them a little while to get comfortable and settle in.”
“This team has gone so far together, but we never had a conference title,” Spangler added. “That was the one thing we wish we had last year, and this is the only thing we could get this year, so it’s huge that we got it with this team finally.”
Bickett, Udell, Sophia Moeller (3 aces), Carli Kobbeman (15 digs), Denali Stonitsch (19 assists), and Taylor Reyna (1 kill) make up the Rockets’ freshman corps, and with three sophomores, it makes up more than half of the varsity lineup at season’s end.
“The experience they they gained from this short of a season is humongous for me coming back in the fall with their confidence level and the ability to know what they have to work on,” Pillars said. “After this, they were upset, and I told them to remember how this feels because this was kind of like our little postseason, and next year you’re going to set your sights higher.”
“Looking forward to what we have next year, we’re basically a freshman team, and Maya Sands coming back next year [from injury], we’ll be good,” Bickett added.
Big Northern Tournament championship
Rockford Lutheran def. Rock Falls 22-25, 25-22, 25-21
Star of the match: Lauren Spangler, Lutheran, 16 kills (7 in deciding set), ace
Key performers: Jaycie Sheean, Lutheran, 8 kills, ace; Claire Bickett, Rock Falls, 12 assists, 6 kills; Mallory Pinske, Rock Falls, 6 kills, 5 solo blocks; Cara Goff, Rock Falls, 21 digs, 5 kills; Kylie Wilhelmi, Lutheran, 7 kills
These days, Cody Cutter primarily writes for territorial "Living" magazines and specialty publications in northern Illinois, including the monthly "Lake Lifestyle" magazine for Lake Carroll. He also covers sports and news on occasion; he has covered high school sports in northern Illinois for nearly 20 years in online and print formats.