With all the anticipation surrounding Tuesday’s match, Neuqua Valley coach Kelly Simon had a simple message for her girls: Don’t change a thing.
“Don’t do anything different than we have all season,’” Simon said, “and we will win.”
Win the Wildcats did, scoring the last seven points to defeat Waubonsie Valley 25-12, 25-22 and clinch the Upstate Eight Valley championship.
Setting a new program win record, Neuqua (24-10, 7-0) won its first outright conference title — and did so in the last season before the Wildcats and Waubonsie move to the DuPage Valley Conference.
“We like to go out with a bang,” said Neuqua senior Kaelan Haag. “It’s really special to be able to pull this out, and awesome to do it in our last regular-season home match.”
It was a special night in many ways.
In addition to the conference implications, it was also the culmination of “3 Valleys, 1 Fight” a collaboration by the three District 204 schools in response to Simon’s breast cancer diagnosis this fall. The schools sold more than 800 T-shirts with proceeds going toward the Side-Out Foundation.
Both sides wore pink accessories, and a huge crowd came out, including many members of the Wildcats football team.
Feeding off that emotion, Neuqua came out with a wave of energy and controlled Game 1. A 9-1 run started with a Claire Grove kill, an Abby Skryd crushing spike off a Waubonsie defender and another Skryd slam to make it 13-5.
“I know the girls were excited about this match,” Simon said.
Waubonsie (17-11, 5-1) seemed to have the answer in Game 2, switching to a 5-1 with Lauren Hiller running the offense. In system more, the Warriors surged ahead 14-9 and later 18-13 on a Caroline Cordes kill and back-to-back Brooke Burling kills.
“We were connecting a lot better that second game,” Cordes said.
Somewhere, Simon said her team found what it lost.
“Waubonsie did a lot of things well in Game 2, but just before they called their last timeout things had changed,” Simon said. “I knew when I looked into their eyes during that huddle they would pull it out. They locked it back in.”
Trailing 22-18, Neuqua regained serve on a Waubonsie double-contact violation, and two Haag kills sandwiched around an Emily Krachenfels ace tied it.
Waubonsie, forced to burn its allotment of timeouts earlier, couldn’t halt the momentum.
Haag and Sarah Daneliak had a big block of Cordes to make it 24-22, and at match point Grove’s back-row spike was dug into the net.
“We just weren’t aggressive enough at the end,” Waubonsie coach Kristen Didier said. “If you tip it, No. 18 (Haag) is going to slam it right back at us. You have to swing and take risks, or you’re going to get blocked.”
Cordes had four kills and two blocks, Hiller 11 assists, Burling 10 digs and Becky Breuer eight digs for Waubonsie. Grove led Neuqua with seven kills and 14 digs, Skryd and Haag had six kills and Krachenfels 16 assists.