Returning state-runner up Lincoln-Way North was dead in the water.
After dropping the first set of the Marian Catholic Regional championship to Lincoln-Way West — which controlled the action with unbending defense — North looked headed for the chopping block, falling behind 12-5 in Set 2 after a kill from West’s Michael Wexter.
But Jake Walenga and the Phoenix weren’t going home early.
Walenga erupted for 10 second-set kills and willed North to a stirring 23-25, 25-22, 25-20 comeback victory.
“When you have Jake Walenga on your team, you’re never out of a match,” North coach Matt Lawrence said. “Tip your hat to Jake Walenga, because he single-handedly got our team back into the game.”
Walenga, the reigning SouthtownStar Player of the Year, finished with 24 kills and came through with a slew of clutch shots. He put away three of the final five points in Set 2 and two of the last three in Set 3 to fuel Lincoln-Way North (33-4) to the regional crown.
Kenny Christensen added nine kills and two blocks and Austin Faller had 42 assists for No. 3 North, which advances to face No. 2 Brother Rice 7:30 p.m. Friday in a Marist Sectional semifinal.
“It says something about us as a team,” Walenga said. “We didn’t really get down or start yelling at each other like any team would. We kept staying at the optimal level and that eventually broke West.”
Jon Adlington led the Warriors (28-8) with 12 kills. His partner in the middle, Jake Gasparich, added seven. Wexter posted 31 assists and six kills and Tony Prospero added 11 kills and seven digs.
“I definitely felt like we had them — especially middle to the end of that second set,” said Adlington, who sparked West to a 9-4 lead in Set 3 with three kills and a block.
As much as the second set belonged to Walenga, it was Christensen providing the initial spark in Set 3 with five of his kills and two blocks. His final kill gave North a 14-12 advantage, enough to hold off West for the remainder of the match.
“In my opinion, this was the most intense game we played all season,” Christensen said. “Their middles are very skilled, obviously, and I thought the key was matching up on them.”
Jake Martin added 13 digs and Zack Szajkovics had eight for West, prompting Lawrence to call it some of the best defense North’s seen all season.
Yet as well as West played, Walenga and Co. were just a little better.
“Once Austin started setting Jake on every ball, and Jake started getting kills on every ball, I believe that was the difference,” Lawrence said with a wry smile.