OLYMPIA FIELDS | The glitter headbands and ribbons the volleyball players from Illiana Christian wore Thursday night for the playoffs is not a new tradition.
Neither is winning a regional title.
The Vikings went toe to toe with Rich Central's formidable front line early in the championship of the 3A Rich Central Regional but went for off-pace placement shots at key junctures of the match on their way to a 25-19, 25-21 regional title win.
The regional crown was the third consecutive for second-seeded Illiana Christian (24-12), which will face third-seeded Oak Forest in the semifinals of the Marian Catholic Sectional at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Regional winners Marian Catholic and Queen of Peace will face off in the first semifinal.
Oak Forest has knocked Illiana Christian out of the playoffs each of the last two years.
"It will take a lot of teamwork to beat them," Illiana Christian senior Tonilee Meter said of the sectional matchup. "We've fallen apart before, playing against (Oak Forest). I just think we've got a great group of girls this year that will help and encourage each other."
The teamwork was evident in Thursday night's victory. The Olympians made mid-game runs at the Vikings in both of the games, but each time the Vikings calmly pushed back to thwart the Olympians' momentum.
"We used to beat Rich Central with ball control," said Vikings coach Nikki Van Dyke, whose team defeated the Olympians earlier in the year for a tournament title. "That is not possible anymore. Tonight, we wanted to serve tough, play hard, and outsmart them."
The Olympians (22-11-1) won four of five points in the second game to tie the score at 17 and grabbed a 21-19 lead on a middle kill by Mississippi-bound senior Nakeyta Clair, who finished with a match-high nine kills.
The Vikings responded with the next six points of the match, starting with a block attempt by Clair that went wide. Viking Jaclene Bonnema (eight kills) then dumped a pass from Caroline Toren (16 assists) for a point and a kill attempt by Clair went wide to give the Vikings a 22-21 lead.
Viking junior Tina Massey followed with a kill, Meter an ace, and the match was closed out when an Olympian kill attempt did not clear the net.
"After 21-19, we just couldn't pull a point out there," Rich Central coach Craig Marek said. "We tipped too easy at them, and they came back with a few smart plays. They were more strategic."
The Vikings never trailed in the first game, which tightened up when the Olympians went on a six-point run, including a pair of aces by Raven Southall. The Vikings held a 20-17 lead before winning five of the next seven points to win the game.
"Even though there were times when things didn't go our way, we always kept our energy up," Viking senior Felicia Schaap said. "We just kept encouraging each other to play hard, and it worked."