TINLEY PARK | It was the worst possible ending, and the best possible message.
After T.F. South trailed, 23-18, in the third set of its Andrew Regional final, and 24-21, and at 24-23 when Crystal Lee slammed home her 13th kill of the night following a heart-stopping dig by Cori Reynolds, after a timeout as a reeling Sandburg tried to gather itself, Justine Flores stepped to the line to serve for the tie.
And floated the ball wide.
"I was just trying to get it in," she said later. "It hit the wrong part of my hand."
The Sandburg half of the crowd erupted over the 25-22, 17-25, 25-23 win that sent them to their own Class 4A sectional for a 7 p.m. Tuesday semifinal opposite Marist. The T.F. South half groaned. Flores collapsed to the floor.
Her teammates ran to her, and picked her up.
"That meant a lot," she said. "It said it wasn't my fault. … It said we are a team — we win as a team, and we lose as a team."
Twenty-six times in 31 outings this season, the Rebels won. Against the Eagles (30-7), they won more points — 70-67 — but Sandburg eked out a win in the opening set and, after nearly getting blocked out of the gym in Set 2, another in the closer to advance.
Seven different Rebels had kills on the night. Briana Lilly, Lee, Leah Lagestee and Jenna Pasko put up tremendous blocks. Ashtyn Kapovich, Reynolds and Flores, senior defensive stalwarts, anchored a back row that cleaned up what blocks didn't swat down.
"It's heartbreaking," Lee said. "We played so well as a team and we came out with so much intensity as individuals.
"They had to beat us. We didn't beat ourselves."
The opening set featured 12 ties and six lead changes. Flores had a run of four service points to put South up 8-4, the biggest lead enjoyed by either squad in the set, but from a tie at 18, Sandburg had three kills over the next four points to ease away.
In Set 2, South dominated, racing to a 13-5 lead while frustrating the Eagles with its block. Briana Lilly had four ace blocks in the set and 16 total blocks on the night, while Lee had two ace blocks in the set and 10 total blocks on the night. Leah Lagestee finished with 12 total blocks and Jenna Pasko seven.
"The block is what kept us in the match," South coach Kim Sands said. "It was definitely the reason we won the second game."
As for the third, South never led, and wasn't closer than two points from the fourth rotation until Lee's final kill. Sandburg, getting five kills in the set from Bridget Lebert, and four each from Kathleen Bollito and Leah Lane, just had a bit more firepower.
Afterward, setter Abbe Mullen pondered the season.
"These girls are like my second family," she said. "I count them all as my sisters.
"And our school was so amazing, how they supported us. They decorated our locker room. … I hope we didn't let them down."