KNOX | Wheeler coach Alisha Polite clapped her hands, urging on her young Bearcat squad from just outside the sideline in the fourth set of Thursday’s match with host Knox in the Class 3A sectional.
Freshman Payton Schoon did the same from the front line as the Bearcats (18-16) fought off elimination, trailing 21-17 and down 2-1 in sets.
Knox held off youthful Wheeler 25-21, 25-21, 16-25 and 25-19 to advance to Saturday’s second semifinal match against Andrean, a 25-18, 19-25, 25-20, 25-22 winner over Kankakee Valley.
Wheeler had five players on the floor at all times who had never played in a sectional before.
“We’ve come back three different times in the season down 23-19 and have won, so I don’t every get agitated when we’re down,” Polite said. “I don’t like it, but my girls have the fight.
“It’s the inexperience that we have that sometimes get us.”
Wheeler fell behind 15-5 in the first set, 15-9 in the second before rallying to win the third set.
Wheeler led early 8-6 in the fourth set before falling behind 16-10. It got to within 21-17 on freshman Payton Schoon’s block but would get no closer.
Sophomore Jordynn Parks finished with 13 kills, while Schoon had four. Senior Cristina Gamboa collected 11 digs, and freshman Brittney Ittersagen added nine.
“We’ve come a long way from where we started,” Gamboa said. “Me and Mackenzie Schoon are the only two seniors this year. The team is very young, but we worked really hard all season.”
Gamboa said she looks for the team to vastly improve as the players get more experience playing club volleyball and other high school sports.
“They’re going to be a lot stronger, and I’m so exciting to come and see them play.”
The loss added a string of five straight sectional titles for Wheeler, all in Class 2A.
“We’re a smaller 3A school, and that’s something we have to adjust to,” Polite said.
In Saturday’s semifinals, Knox plays Andrean after Hanover Central battles No. 3 New Prairie at 10 a.m. The championship is at 7 p.m.