The Lyons Township High School girls volleyball team fielded a deep, experienced squad that featured four Division I players.
In many years, that would have put the Lions in contention for a state championship.
LTHS was one of the top teams in Illinois this fall, compiling an impressive 34-5 record that exceeded even head coach Joann Pyritz’s expectations.
But two of those losses were to nationally ranked Mother McAuley, which has six Division I players and is one of the strongest Illinois teams in years. The Mighty Macs eliminated the Lions 25-15, 25-15 to win the Class 4A Mother McAuley Sectional title on Thursday in Chicago. McAuley had beaten the Lions 25-15, 25-16 on the same floor on Oct. 22.
“They’re definitely the best team we’ve played this season,” LTHS setter Hannah Juley said. “The first time we played them we knew it was going to be really tough and coming into this game and we just couldn’t come up with an answer. They’re a great team.”
The Mighty Macs (36-3), who have lost just once against Illinois competition, scored the first six points of the match as Notre Dame-bound outside hitter Ryann DeJarld spiked three of her 11 kills and the Lions never got closer than five points in the first game.
The Lions did not play poorly, but McAuley shredded their serve-receive with tremendous jump serving and crossed up the defense with well-placed hits and dumps.
“It’s hard to predict what they’re going to do,” said Juley, who had 12 assists. “They adjust very well and there are a lot of seniors on that team that have been playing together forever. They had a better plan than we did tonight.”
“Our goal was to try to get the block at the right spot and try to predict defensively where we needed to defend the court because they have a very good team,” Pyritz said. “It’s like you’re playing against seven people, so I thought we did a good job of getting people in the right spot. We just didn’t always put it together.”
The Lions scored consecutive points on only five occasions and had just one three-point run, that coming early in the second set as senior middle Cori Hansen pounded two of her team-high four kills before a McAuley error gave LTHS a 4-3 lead.
A kill from senior middle Jessi Skonning put the Lions ahead 5-4 but the Mighty Macs relentlessly pulled away as four different players combined for five aces down the stretch.
“We felt good about ourselves when we were up one or two points in the second game, but they really put it to rest by picking it up,” Pyritz said. “They’ve got the great middles, the great outsides, consistent passing and they are defensively intense. I don’t know how to defend that.”
That’s the same thing many opposing coaches could say about the Lions this year. The senior class put together some impressive resumes. Libero Toni Saracco set school records for single-season and career digs, while the Brown-bound Hansen is the school’s career blocks leader.
Skonning will play for Manhattan and right side hitter Celine Jones is headed to North Carolina-Asheville.
Then there was Juley, a 5-9 Wisconsin recruit who is the only Illinois player named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association Under Armour All-American First Team.
“I felt like we’d have a great record and we’d be consistent but I wasn’t sure we’d win 34 games,” Pyritz said. “I think it’s a combination of things. It doesn’t hurt to have a setter like Hannah Juley, who is a great athlete and a great setter, but you also have the experience of Saracco and Hansen. Skonning’s been in the program a few years and [Ariah] Palter is a great all-around player. It’s a very high IQ volleyball team.”
And one that was tight-knit.
“We just played with so much heart,” said Juley, who will join her sister, Erin, the setter on LT’s 2010 state championship squad, at Wisconsin. “Every single person on this team played for each other. We love each other as a team. I’ve been playing with most of these girls for four years now and it’s been a privilege.