CHICAGO HEIGHTS | They both call Chicago Heights home, and they both walked into Marian Catholic's gym with 18-17 records in the regular season.
Beyond that, the host Spartans and visiting Bloom Township volleyball programs don't have much in common. Marian demonstrated as much over a tidy 38 minutes Monday in a 25-8, 25-9 win to open its Class 4A regional.
Marian emptied its bench, using 14 players, which culminated with two-time Times Illinois Player of the Year Amber Clay, an outside hitter, playing setter for final nine points of the match.
"I love setting," Clay said. "I basically just asked coach to give me a chance, and he let me have it."
Clay managed a couple of assists, including one on a quick set to freshman middle Ashley Sledge, a recent addition to the Spartans' varsity. Both players grinned widely at the result, a reaction much more common these days than when the Spartans opened the season 2-6.
"We've had our ups and downs," Clay said. "At the beginning, we didn't have the same connection as last year. Now, we have more court chemistry because we've played with each other."
The 13th-seeded Spartans advanced to a 6 p.m. game today with fourth-seeded Lincoln-Way North. Marian beat North 25-21, 25-21 in the third-place match at last weekend's Lincoln-Way Central Autumn Knights Invitational.
"We played very well that day," Marian coach Ryan Summers said. "By no means are we the favorite. With as tight as the teams are on the South Side, one game doesn't mean anything."
Indeed, Lincoln-Way Central, seeded behind North, won the Autumn Knights title. Central will face Stagg, a 25-5, 25-2 winner Monday over Thornton, in Tuesday's late semi.
Against Bloom, Marian dominated from the start. Kendyl Todd served for 10 straight points, three of those were aces, as the Spartans took an 11-0 lead in the first set. By that point, Clay was on the bench and Summers was on his way to using 13 players before the teams switched sides.
Bloom coach Jeannette Neubauer, while not shocked at the result, was disappointed at her team's performance.
"They're a cross-town rival, we don't get to play them very often, and it's a psychological thing," Neubauer said. "Several of their players are club players, and I have one. She kind of talked them up at practice, and I think that affected out girls."
Bloom was led Katie Huanke's four service points. Lauren Ringo had 10 service points for Marian, which also got four kills each from Dana Zavesky and Allyson Brooks.