SJO stuns Chicago Christian to win Elite 8 title

Just as her older sister in 2016, Kennedi Burrnett will play volleyball on the state's biggest stage under the bright lights of Redbird Arena. The opportunity would not have been possible had it not been for St. Joseph-Ogden's smoldering turnaround midway into the second set of their supersectional match against Chicago Christian last Friday.

Jenna Albrecht and Lacey Kaiser share the thrill of victory with head coach Abby McDonald
Seniors Jenna Albrecht (left) and Lacey Kaiser celebrate their supersectional title win with head coach Abby McDonald.

After dropping the first set 25-15, the Spartans found their groove after a gritty 25-23 second set and playing the brand of volleyball that fueled 20 consecutive match wins, took the third set and the match, 25-16.

"We came out a little hesitant," said Burnett, who like her sister Abby, will play on a final four Spartan volleyball team for the coveted Class 2A state title. "But then we just jumped back into it. We knew this is what we were waiting for all year. We just kept it together."

Burnett tallied a team-high 11 kills. She also came up big defensively with nine digs and two blocks for the Spartans.

"I think my nerves got into my head a little bit," said outside hitter Katelyn Berry. She was confident that her teammates would do what was needed to get the win, but to secure the win she had to step up her game. "I knew for my team I had to make a change."

The timidity felt by the Spartans in the opening set was both palatable and warranted by the way the Chicago Christian's six-foot, one-inch outside hitter Lia Moore was pounding the ball into the back court. The Michigan State recruit, who will become a Spartan herself next fall, couldn't miss.

Another six-footer for the Knights, Logan Grevengoed and the 5-foot-11 Delanie Grevengoed formed a wall above the tape the Spartan could not penetrate easily.

"I thought our opponent did a great job of keeping us out of system," said head coach Abby McDonald. The pace of the rallies was faster than what she and her assistant coaches saw in the film they had at their disposal. "It was really fast and intense. We were on our heels on defense."

Libero Rylee Stahl celebrates a block with teammates.
Rylee Stahl celebrates a point for the Spartans. The senior libero had a team a team-high 19 digs to lead SJO into the Class 2A final four. (Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)
Leading up to a 17-all score in the second set, the score between was tied seven times with the Knights scoring the go-ahead point.

On the eight tie, SJO surged ahead ticking off three unanswered points to get to a 20-17 tilt before Knights' head coach Karen Van Assen called a timeout.

McDonald used the break to inspire her players.

"She just told us to forget about that set. We've been there before and we know how to come back from that," Berry recounted. She was held to just six kills by the Knights. "We know how to come back from that. A new set is a new set."

Holding on to win the second set would put the final match outcome in SJO's favor. Prior to the supersectional, out of the seven three-setters this season, SJO took the match in all but two. The Spartans lost to St. Thomas More and St. Teresa, who will also play a semifinal on Friday, in deciding third sets. SJO won their last five extended matches and the odds were dramatically in their favor if they finish the second set with a win.

"Honestly, I felt Katelyn did really well," senior Stephanie Trame said about Berry's overall performance. "She had a great attitude when she was blocked. She didn't let it get in her head."

Trame was contributed seven of the SJO's 34 match kills.

"We had more energy in the second set and started playing as a team," she added. "We found ourselves."

With their confidence continuing to swell and the combined defensive leadership of Rylee Stahl and Emily Bigger, St. Joseph-Ogden pulled out the second set, 25-23. At libero, Stahl keep the ball in play with a team-high 19 digs. Bigger had 16 and made 26 passes. In one of their best defensive efforts of the season, SJO players combined for 70 digs in the three-setter.

Payton Vallee bouyed the Spartans on both offense and defense as well. In addition to her two digs, the junior along with senior Lacey Kaiser, who notched 8 digs, were co-leaders in blocks at the net with three apiece. Vallee also put away six well-placed kills in the supersectional effort.

Emily Bigger and Stephanie Trame get their hands up
Emily Bigger and Stephanie Trame get their hands up to deflect a shot by Chicago Christian's Olivia Ingelse during first set action on Friday at Chicago Christian High School. (Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)
"We went into the third set with a lot of momentum," McDonald said. "We were in their heads offensively and defensively. They were having to think about every touch on the ball."

Her team jumped out to a modest 4-1 lead to open the final set. Chicago Christian worked their way out of the deficit to tie the game at 4-4 thanks to an ace.

SJO immediately got a sideout and took the lead. They pieced together a five-point run forcing the Knights to burn a timeout staring 9-5 deficit.

When the action resumed, the Spartans continued to exploited the hole it found in the hard-hitting Chicago Christian armor and increased the scoring gap by eight points to 19-11.

"We've got three kids that can swing. We've got a defense that is quick and aggressive," McDonald said about the momentum shift. "I just thought that once we got going and our kids gained some confidence and knew we could compete with them. I knew we could pull it out."

Eleven serves later, the SJO contingent - players, fans and parents - were celebrating a well-deserved victory.

"There are just so many emotions right now," Burnett said. "I'm just so excited. I'm blessed to be with all these people on the court and I couldn't be happier."

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