Nazareth players celebrate their 2nd place finish in Class 3A on Nov. 12 at Redbird Arena in Normal. Pho by Randy Whalen

Nazareth players celebrate their 2nd place finish in Class 3A on Nov. 12 at Redbird Arena in Normal. Pho by Randy Whalen

St. Francis tops Nazareth in three sets for Class 3A title

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By Randy Whalen
Correspondent

Kitty Sandt smiled through the disappointment.

There was no reason to dwell on it. The Nazareth senior setter/right side hitter had just ended her high school volleyball career in a familiar place: Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State.

In three of Sandt’s four high school years, she saw the Roadrunners’ season end at state (there was no postseason tournament in 2020).

Unfortunately for her and her teammates, Nazareth fell just short of repeating as state champions. The Roadrunners lost, 25-23, 25-23, to Wheaton St. Francis on Nov. 12 in the Class 3A state title match.

It’s the 13th state championship for St. Francis (30-12), but its first in seven seasons. The Spartans which won their final 11 matches and 20 of their last 22.

Nazareth (22-17), which ended the regular season at .500, was a bit of a surprise contender.

“This is the hardest of the three because you always want to end with a win,” said Sandt, who helped the Roadrunners to a third-place finish in Class 3A in 2019. “Every time I’m here it’s like a surreal experience. It’s like a second home here.

“But I can’t say that I’m disappointed. All these girls, we never gave up on each other, we never quit. I’m really proud of how we played.”

So was Nazareth coach Melissa Masterson.

“This is a tough one,” Masterson said. “We never want to lose but I’m so proud of this team to get back to this point. It’s just these girls. We didn’t focus on our record, we focused on getting better, and ultimately we believed we could get here. This is the third final four for Kitty and she did an incredible job for us.

“But credit St. Francis, they played an outstanding match. They won it. We didn’t lose it.”

Both sets came down to the wire, but the second set was tough as the Roadrunners held a 23-22 lead after an ace by Sandt (13 assists, 2 kills, 6 digs, block, ace).

That’s when St. Francis sophomore setter/right side hitter Addy Horner stepped up, making a kill to tie the score. After sophomore middle hitter Emma Delaney (3 blocks, kill) had a block to give the Spartans a match-point opportunity, Horner (9 assists, 6 digs, block) then delivered her 10th kill of the match for  the championship-winning point.

“It’s a tough feeling now,” Masterson said following the title match. “One point here or there was the difference. But the girls will look back and say they were glad they had this opportunity.”

Victoria Sarin led Nazareth with nine kills and had four digs. Fellow junior outside hitter Lauren Salata smacked seven kills and had 10 digs. junior opposite side hitter Olivia Austin added four kills, and junior setter Athena Douglas had eight digs and two assists.

“Every year there’s a new group of girls and we went through some hard challenges,” Salata said. “But we found a way to bond and get here.”

The Roadrunners advanced to the title match with a 25-19, 25-13 victory over Taylorville in the semifinals on Nov. 11.

Nazareth was 4-10 at one point this season, and the turnaround and postseason run provided Austin the opportunity play for a volleyball state championship for the third time in three postseasons. She was also a key player for the Roadrunner basketball team, which was the 2022 Class 3A state runner-up in March.

“There were a lot of different feelings between last November and March, and then to now,” Austin said after the semifinal match. “But I felt it (getting back to this point) since the beginning of the season. I knew how much talent we had, so I’m not surprised we got here.”

Sarin (9 kills, 3 digs), Austin (6 kills), Salata (8 kills, 6 digs, ace), Sandt (24 assists, 4 kills, 3 blocks, 2 digs), junior libero Reese Butkus (7 digs, 2 assists, ace), and senior defensive specialist Megan McNichols (5 digs, assist, ace) led the Roadrunners in the semifinal.

Taylorville (30-11-1), which was making its first-ever state appearance and lost 20-25, 25-21, 25-17 to Joliet Catholic (24-18) in the third-place match, was led by senior outside hitter Elle Richards (6 kills).

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