STILLMAN VALLEY – When the momentum seemed to have shifted away from the Rock Falls volleyball team, an experienced group of Rockets showed no panic.
After being forced to a third set in the Class 2A Stillman Valley Regional championship on Thursday evening, the Rockets quickly took control and showed that they weren’t about to be denied their first regional title in 7 years.
Rock Falls opened the deciding set with an onslaught en route to a 25-18 23-25, 25-11 win over Aurora Rosary for its first regional crown since three straight titles from 2010-12.
“[Losing the second set] really did wake us up,” senior libero Maddie Sands said. “We kind of just pulled together, took deep breaths, and really picked each other up and made sure we were all doing our job. All around, the energy seemed to be up, and we couldn’t be negative on ourselves. We just knew we could get out of that situation because we’d done it before. We needed to come out with super-high energy and play our game.”
After a pair of hard-fought back-and-forth sets, the third started off with errors on each side. Senior Elise Moeller then pounded a pair of kills for the Rockets (36-1), and she added a third after a Rosary hitting error. Vanessa Romo spiked a kill to force a Rosary timeout, then another Royals error and a Maya Sands ace made it 8-1.
“I think we knew that they had the momentum coming off the second game, getting that win and kicking it to a third, so we told ourselves that we needed to come out right away and stick it to ’em,” Moeller said. “We needed to go on a run and make a statement right away that we deserved that win, and we deserved the regional title. We’ve been working so hard for this, and we wanted this so much.”
Another run followed a serve out of bounds. Romo had another kill, then served two points on back-to-back Rosary errors. After the Royals (21-15) scored two points, Makiah Alvarado spiked a kill, then combined with Mallory Pinske on a block for a 15-14 lead.
“Everything just fell together, and everyone was just communicating really well, and everyone was so excited,” Romo said. “It’s such a great feeling, because we haven’t won a regional championship for a while, and it just means so much to us seniors to get it.”
Moeller’s back-row kill and a Maya Sands spike answered a pair of Rosary points, and another Maya Sands kill made it 20-10. Maya Sands then served an ace, Moeller spiked a kill off a set from Maddie Sands, and Romo stuffed a block in the middle to get Rock Falls to match point.
After one last kill for Rosary, the next Royals hit went into the net, igniting a celebration on the court and in the raucous Rock Falls student section.
“It was so exciting,” Maddie Sands said about the loud postgame celebration. “I’ve been up here for 4 years and that hasn’t happened, so this being my last year, it’s just very exciting, and really hits home.”
Every single Rocket who saw the court made some play at some point to help get the win. Moeller finished with 18 kills and a block, Maya Sands added nine kills, 13 points and three aces, and Pinske chipped in eight kills and two blocks. Romo had three kills, two blocks and 12 points – she served for at least one point every time she stepped back to the line – and Alvarado had two kills and a block.
It was the net game where Rock Falls excelled as they had to combat a tough group of Rosary hitters and blockers, as well as stellar libero Sarah Konovodoff.
“Our mindset was to keep it away from their libero, because we know that she’s very good,” Pinske explained. “They’re big blockers, too, so we tried to cut the ball left to take the setter out of the play and avoid the block and the libero. We also knew we had to have big blocks to help put our defense in the back row, so they didn’t have to be running all over the place.”
Maddie Sands led that defense with 22 digs, with little sister Maya adding 12. Moeller added seven digs, and setters Audra Goff and Kennedy Shaw each had six digs. Shaw dished 16 assists and served for eight points, and Goff set for 20 assists.
“It’s so great that we have all of our players out there who can do great things,” Pinske said. “We have a great defense – Maddie did such a great job – then Maya, Elise, all of our hitters, and Vanessa did a great job blocking, so everybody did their part.”
“We just kept playing as a team, and everyone had a phenomenal game,” Moeller added. “Maddie playedphenomenal in the back row, which got the ball to our setters, and then they did a great job executing our offense. Every time someone got the ball, they were ready for it and did their job and put the ball down. That’s all you can ask for.”
Celeste Cozzoni led Rosary with eight kills to go with two blocks, and Molly Sullivan added six blocks and a kill. Paige Gardella finished with 13 assists, six kills and six points, Molly Mulvey had four kills and two blocks, and Brianna Picchietti spiked four kills. Jessica Gardella chipped in nine assists and five points.
Rosary bids farewell to five seniors who are 3-year varsity starters in Konovodoff, the two Gardellas, Cozzoni and Mulvey.
“Those are the five girls I brought up to varsity when I came here, so it’s really hard to see them go,” Rosary coach Bill Allen said. “As soon as we lose the first set, we call it our warm-up game, so we’re ready for the second set. But they have too much power from the outside hitting position that it’s hard to come back from 8-1 [in the third set].”
Class 2A Stillman Valley Regional final
Rock Falls def. Aurora Rosary 25-18, 23-25, 25-11
Star of the match: Elise Moeller, RF, 18 kills, 7 digs, 1 block
Key performers: Maya Sands, RF, 9 kills, 12 digs, 13 points, 3 aces; Mallory Pinske, RF, 8 kills, 2 blocks; Maddie Sands, RF, 22 digs; Paige Gardella, Rosary, 13 assists, 6 kills, 6 points; Celeste Cozzoni, Rosary, 8 kills, 2 blocks; Molly Sullivan, Rosary, 6 blocks, 1 kill
Up next: 2A Genoa-Kingston Sectional semifinal, Rock Falls vs. Rockford Lutheran, 5:30 p.m. Monday