By Randy Whalen
Anthony Pfeiffer waited his entire four-year varsity career for this moment. In the end it was every bit as good as he imagined.
From his opposite side hitter/setter position, Pfeiffer pounded a match-high 14 kills and added 12 assists and 6 digs as Lockport Township captured its first regional title in 14 years with a hard fought 31-29, 25-19 victory over rival Sandburg on Wednesday in the title match of the Lockport Regional at the Lockport Central campus.
The regional championship was the third for Lockport (26-11) in its history. The others were in 1993 and 2004. Sandburg (21-16) entered having won 16 of 21 matches following a 5-10 start. It’s only the second time in the past 16 seasons that the Eagles have not won a regional title.
The Porters will face a familiar foe this Friday in the sectional semifinal at Brother Rice. That’s Lincoln-Way East, which won its third straight regional title and seventh in eight years with a 25-20, 25-14 win over Stagg in the finals of the Brooks Regional.
“It just feels awesome, this is what I’ve been dreaming of since freshman year,” Pfeiffer said. “I super happy to be a part of this. I’m very happy with how I did. Jake (sophomore setter Jacob Prince, who had 18 assists) gave me some great sets. All around we just had great senior leadership.”
Early in the season, Pfeiffer said the team he wanted to beat this season was Sandburg. In his time with the Porters, they never had a victory over Sandburg. Neither did Lockport coach Nick Mraz, a 2007 Sandburg graduate, who played for the Eagles and is in his fifth season as Lockport coach.
“When I was playing for him 11 years ago, Sandburg was the team,” Mraz said of Sandburg coach David Vales. “We’ve been so close to them the last few years. Afterward, he (Vales) gave me a big hug. This is a great stride for us and I guess it (beating Sandburg) was meant to be.”
The opening set was a masterpiece of intensity. There were 19 ties and seven lead changes. The Porters used a 4-0 run to take the largest lead of the set by either team at 20-17 and still led 21-18. But down 23-21, Sandburg scored 3 points in a row to have the first of five set-point opportunities.
But each time Lockport rose to the challenge. Pfeiffer had kills to fight off the first and last one and senior outside hitter Kyle Dixon (7 kills, 2 blocks) and junior middle hitter Jake Whyte (4 kills) sandwiched kills around an Eagle hitting error to tie things up for the Porters.
Lockport took a 29-28 lead on a kill by senior opposite side hitter Patrick Surane. The Eagles tied it at 29-29 on a kill by junior outside hitter Luka Vukanic, but a kill by Pfeiffer and a long hit ended the opener.
“There were so many moments,” Mraz said. “In the first set, we had three or four guys make mistakes and then three or four guys would come back and pick each other up. That’s what a championship team does.”
“We were so focused on executing what we needed to on the court,” he said. “We all said, ‘just get this next one.’ This was a battle and it was definitely a lot of focusing and guys doing their jobs.
“This (regional championship) was something that coach has always said was a big goal. Now future teams can build off of this.”
Lockport never trailed in the second set, which was tied twice at 3-3 and 11-11. Ahead 15-14, the Porters put it away with a 5-0 spurt. Dixon started it off with a pair of kills, Sandburg made a hitting error, Pfeiffer and sophomore middle hitter Jake Maly (3 kills, 2 blocks) combined on a block and Pfeiffer put down a kill for a 20-14 lead. The Eagles returned a ball into the net on match point.
“The first game was mentally tough, but we pushed through and got it,” Pfeiffer said. “Once I saw how our team was going there, I had a real good feeling.”
Senior rightside hitter Will Marks and Vukanic had 5 kills apiece to pace the Eagles.
Vales had never lost as a coach in his nine previous regional title matches on the boys side and has captured 11 straight regional championships as the Eagles girls’ volleyball coach. So this was his first loss in 21 regional title match appearances.
“It was nice that this was won more than it was lost,” Vales said of the Porters. “Every break, every little play was made by them. We got them the first time we played (a 25-20, 25-21 Sandburg win on May 3 in Orland Park), but this time they came out with a lot more heart.
“We knew it was going to be tough, but we put ourselves in a nice position. We only had two senior starters [Marks and middle hitter Jake Ostema], so we will bring back a lot of experience. (Against Lockport) it was two even teams. The difference was Anthony Pfeiffer. We tried all sorts of things to stop him. But he was the best player on the court and he made them tough to beat.”