Preview capsules for Burlington Central, St. Edward and St. Charles East.
Burlington Central Rockets
Coach: Marv Leavitt (531-159 in 19 seasons, 116-34 in 4th season at school)
Semifinal opponent: Chicago Payton
When: 4:30 today
The skinny: A pair of Downstate first-timers will meet today when Burlington Central (34-6) takes on Chicago Payton (37-1). The winner will play either Breese Mater Dei (35-5) or Joliet Catholic (37-3) for the Class 3A championship on Saturday. Joliet Catholic defeated Burlington Central in three games earlier this season.
Central enters with a lot of confidence. The Rockets started regional play as the No. 2 seed, but captured a super-sectional title by surviving three state tournament matches that went three games, including a sectional title-winning victory against Freeport.
"Payton will be a big challenge, but this team isn't against challenges right now," Leavitt said. "Right now we are peaking at the best time of the season. Look at the teams we had to beat to get Downstate."
The Rockets, who won their second straight Big Northern Conference East title, are led by senior setter Molly Turk and junior oustide hitter Stephanie Holthus. Holthus enters the State Finals with 495 kills, the most among any player on the 16 teams in the four-class system -- an average of nearly 13 slams per match. She is also an above-average jump-server. Turk is a two-way threat (693 assists, 230 kills) on the offensive end.
"I give a lot of credit to Molly," Holthus said. "She gives me amazing sets. I wouldn't be able to hit as well as I do without those sets."
Payton's record obviously speaks for itself. The Grizzllies, winners of the Chicago Public League, have reeled off 13-straight victories since losing their only match of the season against Conant.
Payton has plenty of height, which figures to give it an advantage over the undersized Rockets. In go-to situations, the Grizzlies look to 6-foot-2 sophomore Mari Faines (212 kills, 88 blocks) and 6-foot senior Courtney Cunningham (456 kills, 77 blocks), with sophomore Roxanne Rivera (870 assists) generally setting up the action.
Cunningham is the first athlete in school history to score a Division I scholarship. She's signed to play at Mississippi.
Tim's Pick: Payton
St. Edward Green Wave
Coach: Jaime Walton (123-69-2 in 5th season at school)
Semifinal opponent: Freeburg
When: 12:30 today
The skinny: St. Edward (23-17) enters the State Finals with the most losses among the remaining 16 teams in the four classes. It's semifinal opponent, Freeburg, sports a 34-5 mark. The winner will meet either Princeton (28-9-2) or Unity (26-12) for the Class 2A championship on Saturday.
While the match may look lopsided based on the records, St. Edward benefitted from a rugged regular season schedule to post five straight postseason victories in convincing fashion. Only one postseason match went three games, a regional title-winning victory against top-seeded Harvard. The Wave, a No. 3 seed entering regionals, finished tied for second in the competitive Suburban Catholic Conference with a 10-4 mark.
"I would take a tough schedule over an easy schedule any day," said Walton, who was a first-year coach in 2004 when the Wave made its first Downstate appearance and finished fourth. "We've got a lot of kids that do all sorts of stuff for us. It's do-or-die right now and they know it."
The Wave looks to a pair of seniors, in particular, for big-time production -- Kristen Haggenjos (330 kills, 206 digs) and Katie Yohn (326 kills, 353 assists, 204 digs, 110 blocks). Haggenjos is the team's go-to outside hitter, while Yohn floats around the court and is usually involved in every offensive set. A strong senior front line of Molly Kelly and Tess Barry -- both standing at 5-foot-11 -- and regular contributions from a solid cast has put the Wave in the semis.
"I think everyone has been motivated to play better and not letdown during the postseason," Yohn said. "We don't know a lot about (Freeburg), but we are all really excited to go Downstate."
Freeburg has a rich tradition Downstate, having qualified seven times in program history. However, this will be the Midgets first appearance since 1983. Prior to that, Freeburg won two state titles (1979, '82). The Midgets enter the State Finals winners of 18 straight, including a three-game win over Newton for a super-sectional plaque.
Freeburg presents a balanced offensive attack with a pair of juniors, Colleen Yarber (254 kills) and Sam Kassing (212 kills) leading the way. Senior setter Kristyn Wahlig (776 assists, 159 digs, 90 blocks) runs the show.
Tim's Pick: St. Edward
St. Charles East Saints
Coach: Jennie Kull (356-111 in 12 seasons at school)
Semifinal opponent: Evanston
When: 6:30 tonight
The skinny: St. Charles East began with a lot of questions surrounding its prospects for this season after losing a pair of Division I athletes from last year's third-place team.
Those questions, however, were answered quickly as the Saints started out strong and finished even stronger, earning a return trip Downstate after rallying past Crystal Lake South in a thrilling super-sectional match.
St. Charles East (36-4) will meet Evanston (30-10) tonight in one semifinal match. This will be East's sixth appearance Downstate in program history. Evanston will be making its first appearance. The winner will challenge either Mother McAuley (38-2) or Benet (39-1) for the Class 4A title on Saturday.
"God has blessed me with great kids," Kull said. "To get Downstate two years in a row, I am blessed and I know that. This year we had young kids. I wasn't sure what to expect. But we have great leadership and I have great assistant coaches and these kids made it happen again."
St. Charles East's offense starts with senior setter Laura Homann, who enters the State Finals with the most assists (1,041) among the remaining teams in the four classes.
Homann, who had a sparkling 41 helpers in the team's victory against CLS, has plenty of options to look for in juniors Caroline Niski (293 kills) and Jacqui Seidel (286), as well as senior Haley Streich (219 kills) and freshman Meghan Niski (217 kills).
"Our regular season matches have tested us and geared us up for this," Seidel said. "We are prepared to do as good as we can when we get Downstate and take on whatever comes our way."
Evanston knocked out Fremd in two games to claim the program's first super-sectional plaque. In its previous three state tournament matches this year, Evanston needed three games to get past its opponents.
The Wildkits, who like the Saints were awarded a No. 1 sectional seed, are led by junior outside hitter Ali Gossen (302 kills) and senior setter Hannah Folz (771 assists).
"We are just worried about our end," Kull said. "The most important thing for us is taking care of our business. Whatever we are doing we have to be consistent and enjoy the experience."
Tim's Pick: St. Charles East