Junior Olivia Austin spikes the ball during Nazareth Academy’s IHSA Class 3A sectional final win against Fenwick on Nov. 2. The Roadrunners went on to win the supersectional round and are headed back to the state finals this weekend. | Carol Dunning/Contributor

With 16 losses entering this year’s IHSA Class 3A girls volleyball tournament, there weren’t many who thought defending champion Nazareth Academy would make a return trip to the state finals.

But the Roadrunners are, indeed, heading downstate for a third consecutive postseason after a 26-24, 25-20 victory over St. Viator on Nov. 4 at the Trinity Supersectional in River Forest.

“I don’t think anyone expected us to be in this match,” said Nazareth coach Melissa Masterson. “But what these girls have done, building up confidence in themselves and realizing they can do this is amazing.”

For senior Kitty Sandt, a key player on last year’s title team, heading back to Normal is very sweet.

“It’s surreal I get to do it again my senior year,” said Sandt, who had 16 assists against St. Viator. “We lost a ton of seniors who are doing well in college, but this shows how strong our team is.”

Nazareth (21-16) and St. Viator (30-10) started the match trading points. The Roadrunners opened up an 18-10 lead in the first set, but the Lions staged a furious rally and served for the set ahead 24-23. 

However, junior Olivia Austin came up with back-to-back kills for Nazareth. The Roadrunners then took the set when defensive specialist Megan McNicholas served up an ace.

“In the state playoffs, runs are going to come and go,” Austin said. “But we kept our energy up and the team played for each other.”

Photo by Melvin Tate

St. Viator jumped out to a 5-2 lead early in the second set, but Nazareth went on an 8-1 run to take a 10-6 lead and looked poised to pull away.

The Lions ran off four consecutive points to even things at 10-10. Then after Nazareth took a 14-11 lead, Viator closed to within one at 16-15. 

However, Reese Butkus gave the Roadrunners some breathing room with back-to-back aces that gave Nazareth a 21-17 lead. Butkus had four aces and 11 digs for the evening.

“We’ve learned this season not to give up and to have faith and confidence in each other,” Sandt said.

When the Lions committed a hitting error on match point, the Nazareth players and coaches erupted. 

“St. Viator fights; that’s a good team,” Masterson said. “We had talked about staying composed, knowing they would make a run. Reese got some huge points for us at the end.” 

Lauren Salata had eight kills, Austin seven kills and Tori Sarin four kills for Nazareth. Austin and Emily Risley each had a pair of blocks for the Roadrunners, who will meet Taylorville in an IHSA Class 3A semifinal Nov. 11 at Redbird Arena on the Illinois State University campus. Match time is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

“We’re so grateful to be heading back,” said Austin. “We’ve worked all season for this. We had a tough schedule and faced some challenges, but we overcame them.”