On the court, Oswego East has been flying under the radar much of the season. The Wolves, who trail Illprepvb.com’s 11th-ranked Plainfield East by one game in the Southwest Prairie Conference, opened tournament play against No. 2-ranked Glenbard West.
Oswego East could have used a warm-up match before facing the three-time defending state champions, but the Hilltoppers were in no mood to be accommodating in Game 1, building a 15-5 lead on their way to a 25-11 win.
The Wolves turned the tables in the second set, however, grabbing leads of 6-1 and 17-13. Oswego East still led 20-18 on a kill by 6-foot setter Sam Behnke, but Glenbard West closed the set on a 7-1 run including an ace on match point by Ryan Swartz to go 2-0 in the tournament.
“They (his players) woke up in the second set,” said Oswego East coach Brian Zerfas. “They had to get into a rhythm. They started doing it a little bit toward the end of the first set, and then they came out in Game 2 ready to rumble.
“Once they were able to do that, it was anybody’s match,” he added. “Glenbard West made some uncharacteristic errors and we were able to capitalize. 20-20. That’s where you want to be. We just have to finish.
“But it was a lot fun, a heckuva lot of fun,” Zerfas said. “They played their hearts out.”
Six-foot-2 twin outside hitters Collin and Cade Harrison led Oswego East (13-7) with 7 kills apiece. Behnke added 17 assists to go along with his 1 kill, 6-foot sophomore Anthony Torres added 4 kills and 2 aces and 6-5 middle hitter Zeke Rivera had 1 kill and 1 ace.
“We all make errors,” Oswego East’s 6-foot-4 middle hitter Jahari Winkfield said. “There are team errors. We lost momentum (in the first set). We couldn’t get into a rhythm with our passes, with our hits. We were not really executing on the ball as well.
“But in the second set, we really got our boost back,” the Daemen College (Amherst, New York) recruit said. “As soon as we started getting our passes, we got our energy back and just kept swinging out there.”
Despite Friday’s loss to Glenbard West, Winkfield likes the direction the Wolves are headed late in the season.
“We’re working hard every single day,” he said. “It really showed in the second set. One of our biggest challenges is always focusing in. When we do that, I believe we’re unstoppable. We can go really far (in the state tournament).”
Neuqua Valley’s state tournament future is uncertain after the team learned that outside hitter Jeremy Grove could be lost for as many as four weeks to a high ankle sprain suffered in practice last week.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats (19-2) still managed to turn back Plainfield Central 25-18, 25-21 and St. Francis 25-21, 25-15 with Grove on the bench in a walking boot on his right leg.
“We could have just as easily lost those two matches,” Neuqua Valley coach Erich Mendoza said. “But the guys played hard. Now the only difference is with Grove getting 20 kills (per match), we have to distribute it.”
Neuqua Valley even experimented with a 6-2 alignment during the second set of its 25-21, 25-15 win over St. Francis to give 6-7 setter Kevin Kauling more opportunities as an attacker, employing 5-10 senior Andrew Schlegel as the second setter.
“Now’s the time to experiment,” Mendoza said. “We really haven’t practiced it. We talked about it a bunch of times. We just wanted to see how it would work.”
Neuqua Valley and Benet combined Friday to deny St. Francis coach Mike Lynch his 500th career win during Friday’s first round of pool play. Benet rallied from a 20-16 deficit in Game 1 to defeat the Spartans 25-22, 25-23.
“We knew that we’re a really great hitting team, an aggressive team, and if we could pass the ball we can put the ball away,” said Benet’s 6-3 outside hitter Jack Andringa. “We had that confidence throughout the entire match.”
With Grove’s health issue hanging over Neuqua Valley like a dark cloud, Benet (18-7) could be one of the favorites to emerge from the Illinois Math & Science Academy sectional.
“I think we’re improving every week for sure,” Andringa said. “I think we proved (St. Francis) was clearly not one of our best matches. Our serve-receive was not on point and we missed some serves on key points.
“But it shows our resilience,” he added. “We’re never a team that just gives up and folds when we’re down.”