PAXTON — With a 25-21, 25-18 loss in the IHSA Class 2A Paxton Regional championship match to Unity, the Paxton-Buckley-Loda volleyball team concluded a season in which they set a school record for wins with a record of 30-6.
“The girls were a pleasure to be around every single day, and you can’t say that about most teams every year, but this group was truly fun to be around every single day,” PBL head coach Lindsay Stalowy said. “I looked forward to working with them every day. It was a successful year.”
Two of PBL's six losses came at the hands of Unity, which defeated the Panthers 25-23, 25-18 in late September.
“We knew Unity’s a really good program," Stalowy said. "We were looking forward to our second chance at playing them again.”
The Panthers led 8-1 to start the first set of Thursday's regional title match.
Cosgrove started a 7-0 run via a kill to give PBL a 2-1 lead. Abbie Schmidt recorded two aces during the run as well.
“We started out really strong," Stalowy said. "I was really happy with the way my players competed, but ultimately, Unity came out on top.”
Following a Unity sideout, PBL scored two straight points, including one via a kill by Jasmine Miles. Another kill by Brooke Walder made the score 11-4.
After Emma Bleecher recorded a side-out kill for Unity, a kill by Hannah Schwarz helped PBL extend its lead to 13-5. Two kills by Addison Oyer extended the Panthers' advantage to 15-7 before a tip by Jalyn Powell made the score 15-8.
From there, Unity went on a 7-1 run as Maddy Moore recorded a block, Lily Glanzer recorded a block and Powell tallied an ace to make the score 16-11, 16-12 and 15-15, respectively.
“Unfortunately, we’re a little well-known for starting off a little slow,” Unity head coach Kylie Hockersmith said. “I had faith that once they got those jitters out and started controlling our side a little bit more, we’d be OK. Moving forward, it’s not going to be good for us, so hopefully, we can overcome that and continue to work on starting off stronger.”
The Panthers scored three straight points before a kill and a block by Emma Felsman cut Unity's deficit to 19-16 and 19-18, respectively.
After the Rockets tallied a game-tying point, an ace by Karlie Roberts resulted in Unity’s first lead of the set at 20-19.
“I think they were just playing the game they always play," Stalowy said. "Even though they were down, they stayed calm and they had confidence in themselves, and that’s what allowed them to come back when we were up by so much. I don’t think they did anything crazy. I think they just remained calm on their side.”
Another ace by Roberts extended a Rocket lead to 3-1 in the second set, and she tallied two straight aces later on to extend the advantage from 18-11 to 20-11.
“Roberts always comes in and serves really well for us,” Hockersmith said. “It seems like when she’s in there, we’re definitely scoring a lot, which is nice. We have a lot of kids coming off the bench for serving purposes. We tell these girls they’ve always got to be ready to perform.”
Emma Bleecher recorded three kills for Unity during a 5-1 run that broke a 20-20 tie in the first set while Ella Godsell recorded an ace and Maddy Moore tallied a block.
Felsman recorded a kill that tied the second set at 1-1.
“Bleecher’s always a big offense for us, but getting Felsman and Moore both blocking and scoring — it’s just super-big for us to be able to spread our offense out and have lots of weapons all over the court,” Hockersmith said.
Following a kill by Miles that made the score 3-2 in the second set, a kill by Powell, two aces by Ella Godsell a kill by Bleecher and a block by Moore extended Unity's lead to 9-2.
Miles recorded a block to help the Panthers score two straight points before two kills by Bleecher and an ace by Destyne Duncan extended Unity's lead to 12-4.
After PBL sided out, Powell and Oyer exchanged kills to make the score 13-6. Following a Unity sideout, Payton Kaiser recorded a kill to extend the Rockets' lead to 14-7.
Cosgrove and Bleecher exchanged kills before kills by Oyer and Miles cut PBL's deficit to 15-11. From there, Unity went on a 5-0 run as Moore recorded a kill prior to Roberts' two straight aces.
After PBL sided out and Carly Mutchomre recorded an ace and Oyer recorded a kill to cut the Panthers' deficit to 20-14, Moore and Oyer exchanged kills to make the score 21-15.
Bleecher recorded two kills that extended a Unity lead from 21-16 to 23-16.
Bleecher recorded another kill to make the score 24-17 before Schwarz and Kaiser exchanged kills to end the match.
The Panthers will say goodbye to two seniors — Abbie Schmidt and Jolee Hastings. The match on Thursday marked the first time PBL competed in a regional final since 2012, and the Panthers are looking for their first regional championship since 2004.
“The future is bright," Stalowy said. "We know what it’s like to compete in a regional championship now. Our goal is going to remain the same for next year — hopefully to win one of those regional championships.”
Meanwhile, Unity goes into sectionals with an eight-senior roster. Three of those seniors are starters.
“I would say senior leadership always helps calm the nerves, especially in the postseason," Stalowy said. "I do know that a handful of their starting lineup are underclassmen as well, so on the court, they’re about 50/50, but sometimes, the extra year of experience helps.”
Unity won its first regional championship since 2008 via its victory on Thursday. The Rockets (32-5) will face Herscher in the IHSA Class 2A Watseka Sectional semifinals at 7 p.m. Monday.
“I am definitely looking forward to it. It feels awesome,” Hockersmith said. “It’s just something that was a goal of ours. It’s a really big step for our program.”