After Neuqua Valley pulled within a point of Glenbard West at 24-23 in the third game of the championship match Saturday at Glenbard East, the Hilltoppers’ 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter Ryan Swartz had only one thought on his mind.
“I have to hit the ball in the court,” he said.
Swartz’s blast through a pair of blockers ended a marathon three-set championship match which saw previously unbeaten Neuqua Valley squander two match points in the second game and the two teams tied 12 times in the third.
But in the end, it was Swartz who put the finishing touches on Glenbard West’s 23-25, 30-28, 25-23 victory.
“Neuqua (Valley) is a great team,” Swartz said. “It was our defense that pulled us through. (Libero) Zach Morris got every single ball up. We played crazy defense today. That’s what made the match so exciting and kept those rallies going.”
The win was the seventh in a row for three-time defending state champion Glenbard West (8-1), which dropped its second game of the season at Lincoln-Way East but has not lost since.
“We’re a young team,” said Swartz, one of 15 juniors and sophomores on the roster. “The Lincoln-Way East game really open our eyes to let us know what we needed to work on, especially our passing and serve-receive. It showed today.”
Nevertheless, No. 1-ranked Neuqua Valley (12-1) had two chances to end the match in straight sets after rallying from a 12-6 deficit in Game 2.
“We just couldn't get a kill,” Neuqua Valley coach Erich Mendoza said. “It was a scenario where Jeremy (Grove) was hitting from the back row and they put a triple-team on him and put the ball back down.
“It's one of those things where we had an opportunity to close and we didn't,” the coach added. “But I told the guys, ‘Don't be down in yourselves for the way played. You played a great match. Glenbard West is a good team. The match could have easily gone the other way.'”
Despite the loss, Grove made a strong case for Player of the Year with 28 kills and 4 blocks. His kill from the back row against a triple-team got Neuqua Valley within 24-23 in the third game before Swartz’s heroics.
Six-foot-7 setter Kevin Kauling had 29 assists, 5 kills and 9 digs for the Wildcats, who also got 7 kills each from 5-11 outside hitter Mark Borghesi and 6-7 middle hitter Jeremy Cardenas. Libero Francisco Comas had 21 digs and Carson Gentry added a dozen.
Swartz led Glenbard West with 10 kills, while 6-8 middle hitter JT Ardell added 7 kills and 6 blocks. Six-foot-6 outside hitter Stone Metz added 9 kills and 3 blocks as the Hilltoppers used their height at the net to minimize their inexperience.
“We haven’t played many games,” Glenbard West coach Christine Giunta-Mayer said. “This was a great experience for my young team. Everybody's learning their role. Everybody’s doing their job.”
In a match decided by a handful of points and affected by the low ceiling and basketball backboard overhangs in the Glenbard East gymnasium, small things were probably the difference, Mendoza said.
“You have two really good teams going at it, little things like a missed serve make the difference in the match,” he said. “But I told the guys, last year we weren’t even playing for first place, second place, third or fourth, and now we’re playing in the championship match.”
Neuqua Valley advanced to the championship by edging Glenbard East 25-19, 29-27. The Rams were playing their first matches of the season with rightisde hitter Fil Kwidzinski, who injured a knee during the football season.
Glenbard East (6-6) led 24-21 in the second game against Neuqua Valley, but was unable to finish. Kauling used his 6-7 frame put away two overpasses to end the match.
“I have three fantastic defensive specialists (Peter Surlina, Jacob Bojan and Nick O’Brien) who could probably start for any other team in the state,” Glenbard East coach Marci Maier said. “I can count on one hand the serve-receive errors they had in that match. It was just poor timing.
“But you have to seal the deal at 24-21,” she added. “Obviously, you don’t want to end the match with two overpasses.”
Lake Park (9-2), which won the tournament last year by handing Glenbard West its only loss of the season, was unable to recapture that magic in the semifinals, falling 26-24, 25-15. The Lancers bounced back to finish third by beating Glenbard East 25-20, 28-26.
Robert Sampson led Lake Park with 36 assists against Glenbard East. Six-foot-7 junior middle blocker Max Ellenbecker had 8 kills, Nick Martinski and Zach Deardorff each had 7 and Jordan Haigh added 6. Nicolas Carzoli had 16 digs.
“I liked the way our guys didn’t get down on themselves when we were down (against Glenbard West),” Lake Park coach Brian Fischer said. “We battled back point-for-point. Overall, we played pretty well today.
“We just had too many missed serves and gave teams easy points,” he added. “That was kind of the name of our game today. But it’s something we can work on, something we can improve on. It was just one of those days where we couldn't find it over the net.”