Lincoln-Way East, Illprepvb.com’s pre-season No. 1 team, was knocked out of the top spot following a 25-17, 22-25, 25-18 loss to Neuqua Valley at the Wheaton Warrenville South Tiger Classic on March 31.But the second-ranked Griffins finished where they started, rallying to beat No. 8 Neuqua Valley 20-25, 25-21, 25-22 in the IHSA Boys State Volleyball championship game Saturday at Hoffman Estates.
“These kids are fighters,” Lincoln-Way East coach Kris Fiore said. “Look at us against New Trier (in Saturday’s semifinal). We were down 17-12 after get blown out in Game 1. We could’ve packed it up and just been done. Instead we’re bringing home the biggest trophy there is.”
Lincoln-Way East (39-3) squandered a 19-16 lead in Game 1 of the championship match when Neuqua Valley (33-8) closed out the set with a 9-1 run capped by a pair of aces by the Wildcats’ 6-for-1 all-state outside hitter Jeremy Grove.
But there was no panic in the Lincoln-Way East huddle between games, said the Griffins’ 6-4 junior middle hitter Wil McPhillips.
“We just kept our heads up and said don’t worry about anything,” he said. “Just focus on the next point and keep pushing. We knew we wanted it. We worked really hard the whole season and we did not want to let it slip away like we did last year.”
The Griffins, who won their first state title in 2014, returned to the championship game in 2017 where they were taken down by Glenbard West 25-21, 20-25, 25-16. They were determined not to let that happen again.
“Between games, coach (Fiore) told us to look each other in the eyes,” 6-6 senior middle hitter Mike Herlihy said. “’Know that you want to win,’ he said. We looked at each other and we said, ‘Let’s get it. Let’s go.’”
Herlihy, making just his third start since receiving stitches for a cut on his left non-hitting hand, made the most of his opportunity. He pounded out 11 kills on just 13 attempts (an .846 hitting percentage) as Lincoln-Way closed the second set on a 7-3 run.
“I was out at a bad time, especially starting playoffs,” he said. “To be back and healthy and ready to go during the state tournament, it’s unbelievable. To win it? I love it.”
A block by Neuqua Valley’s 5-11 outside hitter Mark Borghesi knotted the third set at 17-17. But two hitting errors by the Wildcats gave Lincoln-Way East all the breathing room it needed. McPhillips closed out the set and the match with his 10th kill.
George Kougan added 8 kills for Lincoln-Way East, which also got 4 kills from Luis Zavala, 18 assists from Brent O’Donnell, 9 digs from Blake Boykin and 16 assists from Jeremy Walsh.
Controlling the game’s other Jeremy – Neuqua Valley’s Jeremy Grove – was the key to the victory, Fiore said.
“Obviously, we had to control Jeremy Grove,” Fiore said. “In a three-set match to hold him to 18 or 19 kills … it sounds like he went off, but for a kid like that who’s getting that many touches, I thought we did a terrific job.
“That was the key to the match for us … to try to at least keep him somewhat under wraps,” the coach added.
Grove, who had a state-final record 41 kills in Friday’s quarterfinal victory over Lincoln-Way West and 21 in Neuqua Valley’s victory over Glenbard West earlier Saturday, finished with 19 kills. Kevin Kauling added 6 kills, 4 blocks and 16 assists, but 6-7 junior middle Jeremy Cardenas was held to just 2 kills.
“Our middles were almost non-existent in that match, whereas in the other matches during the state tournament we’ve been able to run (Cardenas) a lot,” Neuqua Valley coach Erich Mendoza said. “That would free things up a little more for Jeremy Grove.
“It really just came down to a matter of execution,” the coach added. “We figured we might as well just stick with the 6-2 (two-setter alignment) that I thought caught Glenbard West off-guard. It worked for us that match because we had better passing. We just didn’t pass against Lincoln-Way.”