HOFFMAN ESTATES - After being tested on a regular basis during its quest to capture a state championship, Lincoln-Way East's boys volleyball team faced the biggest challenge of all on the season's final day.
The Griffins dropped the opening set in both their semifinal and title matches at Saturday's IHSA finals. But after rallying past Lake Park, they were able to accomplish the same feat against Warren Township with the title on the line.
East defeated the Blue Devils 22-25, 26-24, 25-19 to claim their first state volleyball title, the school's second championship this spring and its third since 2014 began.
Coach Kris Fiore's squad won their final 24 matches to cap a 41-1 campaign. But darkhorse Warren (28-14) just missed spoiling the party as it nearly won its initial title while also becoming the champion with the most defeats.
Instead, the Griffins join Oak Lawn's 1994 champions as the only teams in state history to rally from opening-set defeats in both the semifinals and also the finals.
"They're the mentally-tough group that I've coached and nothing really fazes them," Fiore said. "They have that goal in sight and they know what to do to get there. They just play tough and move on to the next point. We talked when they playoffs began about how we had the opportunity to be the best Lincoln-Way volleyball team ever. I told them to enjoy the experience and they all took it in but were focused the whole time.
"I told the guys after the second game that if we jumped on them that we'd come home as state champions. Warren fought back so hard in game two and we got them at the end with some great rallies. They had to feel deflated after having their chance and not capitalizing on it. We took a 9-2 lead and then we played great side-out volleyball."
East looked like it had regained control in the second set after Nate Van Dellen (18 kills, 6 digs) used two kills and an ace to give his team a 23-20 lead. Warren stormed back to tie it at 24-24 before Ryan Vorderer (11 kills, 6 digs) got a kill and the Devils put one into the net.
The Griffins, who had gone to three sets just six times prior to Saturday, scored the first four points in the final set and were up 9-2 right away, with Vorderer supplying two kills and Josh Phalen (13 digs) and Van Dellen each serving up aces.
Warren twice pulled to within four points but East ended things by collecting its final nine points on kills, with Van Dellen getting four, including the last, and Aaron Redweik (7 kills) and Carson Slager (6 kills) adding two apiece off sets by Austin Royer (41 assists, 6 digs).
"They definitely didn't play like a team that had 14 losses," Van Dellen said. "They came out strong and really made us work for it. They strung together a lot of runs on us but we were able to pull through and win the second set and that just carried into the third. At first I couldn't see where my last kill went but it definitely was a great feeling and spectacular."
Coach Yun Chen's Blue Devils received nine kills each from Mitch Maan de kok, Jeremy White and Bryant Holland (12 digs) while Arvind Kouta handed out 27 assists and Maxwell Bongratz added three solo blocks.
"This just showed what a great team we had," Royer said. "We were able to stay strong the whole game and not get down or rattled and believe in ourselves in a tight match like that. We worked really hard this season to get here and we knew that the teams here would be really good. It's a great feeling for our seniors to leave with a state championship."
In the semifinals, the Griffins rallied for a 19-25, 25-20, 25-20 victory. Vorderer had 19 kills, Van Dellen added 11 and Slager had 10 kills while Royer had 38 assists and eight digs.