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Volleyball team's road to state blocked, Unity falls 2-1 in nailbiter against Monticello

Heading into Thursday's regional title match against Monticello, the #1 seeded Unity volleyball team enjoyed a six-match win streak and hadn't lost a match in 19 days. The clear favorite, with a 33-3 record to back it up, the Rockets suffered an unexpected, bittersweet ending in an otherwise promising postseason run in a 2-1 loss to the Sages.

Senior Maddie Reed makes a pass in the last match of her prep career during the Unity's regional title match against Monticello last Thursday. The Rockets, who beat the Sages earlier in the season 2-0, lost to the Sages on their home court at the Rocket Center, 2-1.
(Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)
It was clear from the get-go that fans from both teams were in for a gritty dog fight between the two Illini Prairie rivals.

"This is one of their rivals outside of St. Joe, I suppose. They were ready for that," said Unity first-year head coach Erika Yerry about her squad, which featured seven battle-tested seniors. Given the proximity of the two schools and their blooming rivalry, she anticipated a deafening and highly-charged match environment. "They were expecting that. We knew there would be a lot of fans and a lot of screaming."

What the Rockets were not prepared for were Monticello's tenacity and grit.

Yerry said, "We were ready for the battle. I don't think we ready for them to push us as much as they did."

Unity trailed on the scoreboard for the first 25 points in the opening set. Down by three at 14-11, Yerry called a timeout. Soon after, the Rockets pieced together a four-point run to tie things up at 17-all. A return error on the next serve gave the Rockets their first lead in the set.

There would be two more lead changes before the Sages prevailed, 25-23.

Yerry was not overly concerned after losing the first set by two points.

"I wasn't worried. I was more upset about some of the mistakes that we made," she said. "We just had way too many unforced errors in the first set and Monticello only beat us by two. We cleaned that up in the second set and then the third set was just a dogfight."

Behind Emma Bleecher's down-the-line kills and cross-courters from Katey Moore Unity took the second set easily, 25-11. Unfortunately, the shift in energy and momentum for the Rockets did not last.

(Left to right) Unity's Reagan Little, Ruby Tarr, Julia Ping, Jayci McGraw, an unidentified player and Katey Moore cheer for teamates after winning a point in the second set of their Class 2A regional title match. (PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks)

Before two teams entered the deciding third set, Monticello head coach Kim Allison delivered a message to her team that they took to heart.

"I told them: 'Go out there and put everything out on the court. Be competitive all the way through and truly believe you can beat Unity.'"

Allison told the Sages to focus on how they played in the opening set and to take the energy back out on the floor.

"It was nice to be able to say it 'it's a whole new match,'" she told her players. "Think about how you came out that first set. That's the way we're coming out this set."

Yerry had a different message for her squad between the second and third set of the evening.

"I thought we would be more in-system, be more in rhythm going into set three," she said. "But, you can never underestimate Monticello. I told them to be ready and that they would come out firing."

Unity senior Taylor Henry serves the ball during third set action against the Sages. (Photo: PhotoNews Media)
Monticello won the first three points in the final set, but the Rockets held their ground working their way back to their only lead of the game at 4-3. The Sages then scored six unanswered points to go up 9-4 for their largest lead of the do-or-die set.

With a renewed sense of urgency, Rockets' Macie Knudsen and Taylor Henry intensified their play. The burst of energy helped the Rockets outscore Monticello 7-1 and trail by one at 12-11. Bleecher & Co. would get within one to tie three more times but the Sages repelled their efforts each time to win the final set, 25-20.

"We played a tough Monticello team. I don't think we were ready for their defense on every single ball," Yerry said after her first season at Unity came to an unexpected close. "As the rallies go longer and longer, you get more and more tired, and you start to make mistakes. I think that threw us for a loop a little bit."

While their prep career had come to an end, she said three of her seniors plan to play at the collegiate level and were ready to "move on to the next step." Without their dedication, work ethic, and leadership the Rockets would not have concluded their season with an impressive 33-4 finish.

"Overall, our season was amazing," Yerry said.

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