NORMAL - Lanark, Shannon and Lake Carroll are home to a state champion high school sports team! The Lady Cougars of Eastland finished the job Saturday in the Class A State Volleyball Tournament, defeating the Ashland (A-C Central) Lady Knights in the championship match at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena.
The Cougars, under the guidance of head coach Kristy Pierce, won the first game, then battled back to win after suffering a Game 2 loss and losing some much-needed momentum. But the Cougars got it back and persevered. Now, Eastland is the Class A state champion. Eastland pulled out a tough 2-1 win (25-22, 21-25, 25-23).
The victory gave Eastland its first sports state championship in school history. For Coach Kristy Pierce, Saturday's state championship match triumph was career win No. 719. Eastland's only other appearance in the state finals came back in 2003, finishing fourth in Class A.
The third game was a battle royal as there were six lead changes and six ties. The lead for either team was never larger than four points.
When the Cougars gave up six points in a row and trailed by three early in Game 3, Pierce saw body language she didn’t like as the Cougars were coming off the Game 2 loss and had fallen behind again. Pierce called a timeout.
“I saw the look you never want to see as a coach out there starting to creep in,” Pierce said. “That’s why I called the timeout. I wanted to tell them that they were competitors and they came here specifically to win the state championship and they were going to compete.”
The Cougars listened, tied the game and eventually built a four point lead.
With a 24-21 lead and Eastland senior libero and team captain Damaris Linker serving for the match, A-C Central senior middle hitter Kelsey Honkala slammed a kill to get the Knights within 24-22. On the next point, Honkala’s tip cut the Cougars’ lead to 24-23. Pierce called another timeout.
A serve into the net by A-C Central sophomore setter Brittany Stribling ended the match, giving Eastland its first state title.
“In the first part of the game we were just kind of out there going through the motions," senior middle hitter Abbie Hare said. "That timeout is what brought us up.”
Players credited Eastland’s two seniors, Hare and Linker, with keeping the team focused “They always pick us up,” said junior outside hitter Megan Bunyer who led Eastland with 14 kills. “It’s encouraging, and that’s what we needed, and we played our game.”
“I just tried to encourage everyone and keep everyone together," added Linker. "We just knew we had to help each other and that’s how we did it.”
Bunyer’s kills came when Eastland needed a point the most. In Game 3, the Cougars built a 22-18 lead and looked like they would get to the finish fairly easily. Her last kill was her biggest. A-C Central rallied with three straight points to make it 22-21 and put the Cougars back on their heels a bit.
Then Bunyer came through with a kill again to put Eastland ahead, 23-21, and back in control.
The Cougars' outstanding passing and defense were the difference in the game. Courtney Blair provided 13 kills for the Cougars in the title match. Sophomore Hope Linker recorded 25 assists to help the Cougars prevail. Linker also had 12 digs in the state title triumph. Linker delivered five kills and 12 total attacks versus the Knights.
Semi-Final Game EHS vs. Toledo (Cumberland)
Linker and other back-row players made several diving digs, and the Cougars' strong front neutralized a strong A-C Central team.
“We had a few times when we weren't able to hold our blocks and that’s when they went on their big runs,” Pierce said. “When we held our blocks, that’s when things picked up a little for us.”
Linker and Hare’s last match as Lady Cougars was a win in the state finals, something that nearly overwhelmed them.
“We did it! It is just amazing,” Hare said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Eastland will lose just those two players from the championship club to graduation, and both will be missed following graduation.
Linker recorded a team-high 413 digs for the Cougars. Hare delivered 160 kills for the Eastlland volleyball team, good enough for fourth on the squad. Hare was second on the team in blocks. Linker finished the season with 1,050 assists.
Hitters were a key component for Eastland throughout the season. Blair (345 kills), a sophomore middle hitter; junior outside hitter Megan Bunyer (318 kills) and sophomore outside hitter Katelyn Hasken (166 kills) helped to pace the Cougars.
All 15 members of the Eastland volleyball team played a pivotal part as the Cougars played their way to the state championship.
Eastland had a will to win throughout the postseason. The Cougars won three-game matches versus Milledgeville in the Lanark Regional final and Dakota in the Polo Sectional final before outlasting A-C Central Saturday. In 12 matches that have gone three games this year, including the title tilt, the Cougars were 11-1.
Eastland set a school record for wins with 39 and won a sectional for the first time in four years during the 2008 season.
Eastland (38-3) advanced to Saturday's title match for the first time in the program's history by beating Toledo (Cumberland) 25-22, 25-16 on Friday.
"We weren't as aggressive as usual," said libero Damaris Linker, who had 17 assists and six digs against Toledo. "We made some mistakes, but we made more good plays and some great digs."
"We knew that they going to be to come at us with a lot of quick sets," said senior middle hitter Abbie Hare. "We were ready for that and in the right spots, and we executed pretty well. I think it took them out of their game a little bit."
With Abbie and Damaris as the teams' only two seniors, the Cougars fielded one of the youngest teams among the 16 state volleyball finalists. Sophomore middle hitter Courtney Blair led Eastland with eight kills in Friday's match while junior outside hitter Megan Bunyer added six.
The current 15-player roster includes nine sophomores and three juniors along with one freshman. The future looks extremely bright for the Eastland volleyball program! Congratulations on a remarkable and memorable season.