HOFFMAN ESTATES – After coming ever so close to not capturing a state championship, Lincoln-Way East’s boys volleyball team was able to savor its first title that much more.
The Griffins were definitely on the ropes in Saturday’s finals after upset-minded Warren Township won the opener and then tied things at 24-24 in the second set. But East demonstrated why it was top-ranked in the state for much of the season by winning the middle set and then grabbing a big early lead in the finale before finally sealing the deal to record its 24th straight victory to cap a special 41-1 season.
Coach Kris Fiore’s squad became just the second team in state history to lose opening sets in both the semifinals and finals and still emerge as champions. Not bad when you consider that they had only lost three other first sets prior to Saturday’s play. After falling a win short of state trips the past two years, East had set its sights on winning it all. With a talented group featuring 10 seniors to lead the way, the Griffins had their hands full on the last day of the season but managed to capture three-set thrillers over both Lake Park and Warren to earn the trophy.
“Today was definitely tougher than we expected since throughout the playoffs we had won everything in two,” said Ryan Vorderer, who had 30 kills in Saturday’s two matches. “After losing the first game to Lake Park, I said that every championship team has to face adversity at some point or another, so we needed to respond, and that’s what we did, It’s great to finally say that we’re state champions and not just No. 1 in the state.”
A year ago, East’s chances for a state run were affected when Josh Phalen suffered an injury. The libero, who contributed 13 digs in the victory over Warren, was happy to not only be able to help his team in the postseason but to see them win it all this season.
“From the first day of practice we put down our goals and one was to win the state championship,” Phalen said. “We felt a bit cheated last year since we felt that we could have won it. We haven’t gone three a lot and been tested that much. But we got tested today and showed that we can win in three games. We’re a really tight-knit group with great team chemistry so we weren’t going to lose. We didn’t come here to come up short.”
One of the team’s greatest strengths was that anyone could step up their games and perform at a high level when they needed to. A good example of that was Carson Slager, who recorded 10 kills and four block assists in the semifinal victory over Lake Park.
“It just feels so great to come this far after falling short of state last year,” Slager said. “We had to fight hard in order to go three games in both the semifinals and finals. It’s been awhile since we went three games but we stuck together and fought hard and said to just worry about getting the next point and we could do it and we proved that we could. This was our final goal and we worked hard for it. It’s a great last memory of high school.”
After the Griffins eked out the win in the middle set, things started clicking for them and they built a decisive lead over the Blue Devils, who performed exceptionally well over the weekend for a squad who had only won two-thirds of their matches this season.
“This means the world to us,” said Aaron Redweik, who had seven kills against Warren. “From day one we were focused on state and that’s all our mindset was. Mr. Fiore basically told us that we had to play together to win it and we had to do that in both games today. We hadn’t gone three very often, but we knew that if we kept playing like we could that we’d have it. Warren was a great opponent, but we just had to play our game and we did.”
This was the third time in 13 years that East has won a title in an elimination series, including its first since the 2005 football championship. Robby Hoffman’s sister, Meghan, played on the other title winner, the 2002 softball squad. Also, the girls track and field team repeated as state champs two weeks ago and cheerleading won a title earlier this year.
“This was our goal from the beginning and we wanted it and we really had to fight to get it,” Hoffman said. “Some of these guys have been [with] varsity and they finally got what they wanted. Warren put up a really good fight but we don’t really get rattled and we keep composure and just work hard and don’t try to make mistakes. This one also really means a lot since it’s our school’s third championship in one year.”