By Randy Whalen
Special to Illprepvb.com
The Lincoln-Way East boys’ volleyball team had breezed through the postseason without Mike Herlihy. But the Griffins certainly welcomed their senior middle hitter back Friday.
After missing the previous four matches with a hand injury, Herlihy returned to the lineup and was one of four Griffins with 5 or more kills as they fought off some shaky moments and defeated Oak Park-River Forest 25-22, 25-20 in an IHSA quarterfinal match at Hoffman Estates High School.
It was the 11th win in a row for Lincoln-Way East (37-3), which will face New Trier – a 25-16, 25-18 winner over St. Rita in the final quarterfinal – in the second semifinal Saturday at 11:00 a.m. There the Griffins, who are playing in their seventh state finals and won the title in 2014, will attempt to get back to the title game after finishing second last season.
Oak Park-River Forest (28-8) was making its 16th state finals appearance, but lost in the quarterfinals for the sixth straight time.
“We had to have the doctor clear him,” Lincoln-Way East coach Kris Fiore said of Herlihy, who was cleared to play the day before the quarterfinals. “He had missed all of the playoffs. But when you have your 6-foot-6 player of the year on offense back, it’s a good thing. He hit .571 today, which is near where he hit all year. We played well without him, and we’ll continue to play well with him.”
Herlihy cut his left non-attacking hand on May 21, badly enough that it required stitches. It was wrapped up, but he showed no ill effects with 5 kills and a block in playing about half the match.
“I was 100 percent ready,” Herlihy said. “It felt really, really good to be back.”
Especially when he entered the match with the Griffins trailing 14-13 in the first set and immediately tied it up with a kill.
“It was like I was coming back in where I left off,” Herlihy said of quickly getting that initial point. “That felt really cool.”
Even with Herlihy in the lineup, the Griffins struggled to find a first-set rhythm. Oak Park-River Forest led 17-15 before senior outside hitter Ian Piet (9 kills, 3 digs) had a block and then capped off a 6-2 spurt with back-to-back kills for a 21-19 lead.
Junior rightside hitter Quinton Kitzman (5 kills, 3 blocks) answered with a kill to pull the Huskies back within a point. But they severed long and senior middle hitter Luis Zavala (3 kills, 4 blocks) had a block for a 23-20 East advantage.
Following a few exchanges of points, Herlihy hammered a kill, his third in the opener, for the set winner.
The Huskies had leads of 9-5 and 10-6 in the first set, which featured 10 ties. But Lincoln-Way East jumped out to leads of 3-0 and 7-1 in the second set and it was never tied.
Oak Park-River Forest did claw back within 22-19 on a block by senior middle hitter Jack Valenti (2 kills, 3 blocks) and then 23-20 on an East service error. But kills by Piet and George Kougan (3 kills) gave the Griffins the win.
“They (Griffins) can attack out of any position well,” said Valenti, who is the Huskies’ only senior starter. “It’s hard to stop five different hitters with only three blockers.”
Junior outside hitter Kyle Rasmussen paced Oak Park-River Forest with 9 kills. Junior setter Sean Califf added 17 assists and 6 digs for the Huskies, who saw their nine-match win streak end.
It was the first time that Oak Park-River Forest played Lincoln-Way East in coach Don August’s 13-year career.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t pass well enough,” August said. “But Lincoln-Way East is really good.”
Lincoln-Way East, which hasn’t lost a set in the postseason, was happy to get through everything.
“It wasn’t our cleanest match,” Fiore said. “We had to gut through it to get a ‘W.’”
Senior outside hitter Mark Wroblewski (5 kills, block) and junior middle hitter Wil McPhillips (6 kills, 2 blocks) continued to play well for the Griffins. Junior setter Brent O’Donnell (16 assists) and senior setter Jeremy Walsh (14 assists) kept the East offense running.
“It makes my job a lot easier,” said Walsh of having so many options. “I’m not as nervous knowing that to whomever I pass it has a good chance to put the ball down.
“This (getting back to the semifinals) is incredible. We have a lot of returning seniors from last year and can’t wait.”
Piet felt the same way and admitted that he was hoping for another shot at Glenbard West in the title match after losing to the Hilltoppers 25-21, 20-25, 25-16 in the final last season.
“Every day in practice we’ve talked about it,” Piet said of last year’s loss. “It’s motivating us to get back to the final for a second chance.”