The Riverside-Brookfield High School girls volleyball team prides itself on playing tough defense against even the most powerful opponents.

Gritty defense won the Bulldogs more than a few matches this season, including a 25-18, 25-23 mild upset of Whitney Young in the Class 4A Proviso West Regional semifinals.

But no amount of defense would have allowed RBHS to withstand the relentless onslaught Downers Grove North brought in Thursday’s Proviso West Regional championship match (Oct. 31). The Trojans (23-14), who are seeded second at the Morton Sectional, pounded 35 kills compared to just eight by RBHS and cruised to a 25-20, 25-14 victory, snuffing out the Bulldogs’ attempt to win their first 4A regional crown.

“They were better offensively tonight,” RBHS coach Dan Bonarigo said. “We didn’t do well offensively. Our overall numbers show it, but our philosophy all year has been ‘play hard, play tough defense,’ and that’s what we did.

“I told them to just play hard and you’re going to be satisfied with the outcome. You’re going to go down playing tough. [The Bulldogs] played hard. Obviously we would have liked to have been a little closer in game two but Downers North put the ball away.”

The 10th seeded Bulldogs (20-16) had no answer for Michigan-bound outside hitter Katherine Mahlke, who led all players with 15 kills. Ten of them came in the tight first set, which was a back-and-forth affair until Mahlke spiked three kills down the stretch, including the last two.

Mahlke began the second set with a kill and had two more to finish off extremely long rallies in which the Bulldogs battled hard to stay alive. Those were part of an 11-2 Downers North run that put the match out of reach.

“Game 1 we won some of those points,” Bonarigo said. “Game 2 I felt like we didn’t win any of those long rallies and those are kind of demoralizing when you’re playing so tough. You want to win just one of those long rallies.”

While the Trojans also received nine kills from Alyssa Kuciunas and six from Grace Larson, the Bulldogs never mounted a sustained attack. Seniors Monica Kasper and Kayla Noffsinger led the way with three kills apiece. Senior Amanda Lelivelt and sophomore Nicole Labelle had the other kills for RBHS, which received four assists from senior setter Amy Frey and three from sophomore Olivia Gyssler.

“We are not disappointed at all,” Kasper said. “The gap between the points in the second game was a little larger than we had hoped, but we were totally the underdogs. So the fact that we kept playing with them, we were really proud of that.”

So was Bonarigo, whose squad had only four seniors this season and started three sophomores, including libero Selene Anaya, who was outstanding against Downers North with nine digs. The Bulldogs won two tournaments – the Leyden and Maine East Invites – this fall.

“Overall I’m real happy with how we played being as inexperienced as we were,” Bonarigo said. “I’m very proud of how those sophomores stepped in and played all season long.

“Olivia handled a lot of the setting in a 6-2 offense [and] did a real nice job. Selene wasn’t in the lineup much early in the season and she really came up and did some nice things for us. Nicole Labelle, our middle, did a nice job. She didn’t see many sets tonight but neither did our other middle. The other night they put their balls away.”

Though she won’t be around to see it, Kasper said that bodes well for the future of the program.

“I think at the beginning of the year all we were missing was a little bit of confidence,” Kasper said. “At the end of the season we have three sophomore starters and they were a little nervous coming on the team with a bunch of older girls and not as much experience as us, but we definitely encouraged them and we grew really close, which helped them transition to varsity.”