CHICAGO | St. Francis de Sales volleyball coach Arlene Ramos calls herself a “master puzzler.”
She doesn’t have a stack of crosswords, crypto quips or sudokus on her office desk, but the ninth-year Pioneers coach uses many metaphors and acronyms in her motivation and can mix and match a volleyball lineup efficiently enough to make a lost weekend at the conference tournament seem very distant only a few days later.
The host and top-seeded Pioneers used a variety of lineups in a short but sweet 25-8, 25-14 sweep of Universal High on Tuesday in the first semifinal of the Class 1A St. Francis de Sales Regional and advanced to within a win of their first regional title since 1993.
The Pioneers will play Morgan Park Academy, which dominated Seton Academy in Tuesday’s second semifinal, at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“I think the girls understand that wherever I put them in, if they do their job, we can bring home a regional,” Ramos said. “I was keeping some things reserved and in my pocket.”
In their first postseason match since moving down to Class 1A, the Pioneers (9-8) were able to jump and spike with nary a return volley from the Stars (13-6), who were without their head coach and dressed just eight girls to St. Francis’ 14.
“We realized in the first set that they couldn’t stop us when we hit,” St. Francis' co-captain Isis Mance said. “We know we can be a great contender for a regional championship, so we played with all our heart.”
The lopsided advantage on paper allowed Ramos to start several reserves in Game 1, including freshman setter Erika Galan, whose older sister Stephanie is the incumbent at setter. The elder Galan had three aces, two kills and seven set assists Tuesday.
The lineup shakeup proved beneficial for a team that was swept twice on Friday at the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference tournament and came into the playoffs at .500.
“We were really working together at the right time,” said co-captain Amber Malkowski, who led de Sales with five kills and three service aces.
“This team has heart, and I hope to see the same team show up Thursday.”
Morgan Park (20-9) awaits de Sales in Thursday’s final after junior Katelyn Healy amassed 14 kills in the drubbing of the Sting (5-22).
Seton coach Pamela McElroy, who’ll lose seven seniors from this team, didn’t use injuries or illnesses as excuses. Instead she lauded a team that had nothing bounce its way in its final defeat of 2012.
“It was definitely a tough season,” McElroy said. “The girls trained hard in the preseason and in practice, and I told them you’re going to have good luck and bad luck. You just have to play your best and let the chips fall where they may.”