As she stood among the hundreds of fans that flooded the floor following Mother McAuley's victory over Marist, Mighty Mac senior Charley Niego was asked to reflect on the moment.
"Marist and McAuley, it's just a fun match," said Niego, who was the 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois for volleyball. "It's amazing to play in this atmosphere. It's really good preparation (for the state tournament) and we had so much fun.
"Mentally we were just a little stronger. We didn't let anything get in our heads."
After being held down a bit in the opener, Niego was strong in the second set as she helped lead the Mighty Macs to a 25-20, 25-17 victory over Marist in a tussle of top teams Tuesday at McAuley.
Mother McAuley (9-1) continued its mastery over the RedHawks (9-1). Niego is now 5-0 in her three-year varsity career against Marist.
"Charlie wasn't on her stride in the first set," McAuley coach Jen DeJarld said. "Sometimes I worry she thinks that she has to do too much. But she found it in the second set."
Niegro is certainly the leader, but DeJarld was especially happy that her younger players came up big in the huge match.
"We had four sophomores out there on the floor, and I'm especially proud of them," DeJarld said. "We're asking them to do a lot and they handle it with such grace and poise. That has surprised me. This is the best match we've played all year."
Sophomores Amia Owolabi (5 kills, block), Alena Pedroza (5 kills), Niego's younger sister Grace Niego (7 digs) as well as Lexi Warfield (7 digs) all contributed. So did junior Nancy Kane (23 assists, 9 digs, kill) and senior Casey Macander (18 digs).
"We couldn't do it without the crowd," Grace Niego said of the standing room only throng. "They helped push us through."
Mother McAuley led nearly the whole way. The RedHawks scored first and the teams exchanged points until their last lead at 3-2. But the Mighty Macs started pulling away to a 15-11 lead.
Marist fought back to tie it at 18-18 on an ace by senior Molly Murrihy (22 assists) and then 19-19 on a kill by sophomore Camryn Hannah. But Charley Niego responded with a kill to give McAuley the lead for good.
With the Mighty Macs ahead 21-20, Marist committed a double hit. That put McAuley back on serve and Charley Niego served out the set, including an ace for the 24th point. On the other side, the RedHawks committed five of their seven service errors in the opening set.
"We practice serving to those seams every day," Charley Niego said. "We knew after winning the first set we had to play our game and not let up."
In the second set, Charley Niego had 6 of her kills, including one to open it as the Mighty Macs led the whole way. Ahead 9-8, Mother McAuley went on 6-0 run to take control. Charley Niego had a pair of kills in the spurt, including one that happened after a ball struck her sister’s face, but was dug back up to continue the volley. Warfield also added an ace in the run.
The lead grew to 21-12 on a kill by Owolabi. Marist came back with a 4-0 burst, capped by an ace from Hannah, but couldn't get closer than the 5-point deficit. The Mighty Macs scored the final 3 points of the match, including a kill by Pedroza to end it.
Maggie Meyer led Marist with a match-high 10 kills and added 12 digs. Fellow senior Grace Green (13 digs) also contributed for the RedHawks.
"We've known each other basically since we've come out of the womb," Meyer said of Niego. "We've competed against each other for years. It's always great to play against her. She's a tremendous player."
The two teams could meet again at the ASICS Challenge on September 29-30 at McAuley. And, although the sectional assignments aren't going to be released until later this week, the two teams will once again likely be in the same sectional.
-- contributed by Randy Whalen