STM falls one match shy of state tournament

Nov. 4—ROBINSON — With hope dwindling after every point, St. Thomas More senior Julia Johnson started taking some big swings.

Coming out of a timeout down 15-9 in the deciding third set of Friday night's Class 2A Robinson Super-Sectional match against Carmi-White County, Johnson was determined to not let the Sabers' season and her high school career end.

Johnson hammered home kill after kill in the waning moments of that final set, some of the hardest-hit balls all night.

While Johnson did everything she could offensively, the Sabers couldn't slow the Bulldogs down, with Carmi-White County rallying for a 23-25, 25-22, 25-18 win to book a spot in next Friday's 2A state semifinals at CEFCU Arena in Normal.

"She went out with a fight," STM coach Brad Dalton said of Johnson, the team's lone senior. "She's meant a lot all season long. ... Her leadership came alive, and she started pushing everybody to be better. She played hard every day no matter what. That just showed the leadership she provided us, a little bit of her character and how good of a teammate she was."

The biggest example of Johnson's leadership came early in the season. The Sabers were short-handed for the first chunk of their matches, playing without key sophomores Cassidy Monahan and Sophia Hill due to injuries, so they had to shake up their lineup. Johnson, a setter committed to play at High Point University in North Carolina next year, took on an outside hitter role in her teammates' absence.

STM (26-13) only played with its full lineup for the last dozen matches, with Johnson playing as a hitter-setter hybrid, and to still be one of the last eight teams standing in 2A is quite the accomplishment.

Even if it means the Sabers won't get a chance to head back to Illinois State University next weekend, a campus where the STM program has won two state championships since 2017.

"You knew they all had great character because they hung together and kept fighting," Dalton said. "Those kids battled, they played great and they competed. We didn't lose because of our youth. We lost because the other team played better."

Johnson had 14 kills, 14 assists, eight digs, two aces and two blocks, while Shannon Monahan wound up with nine kills, 10 digs and one ace and Cassidy Monahan ended with nine kills and 11 digs. Addie Kerr chipped in 14 assists and six digs, and Audrey Gooding closed with 16 digs.

The first set Friday night was as close as it could have been, with both teams trading points up to a 20-20 tie and STM finishing as the benefactor.

Set two saw the Sabers start to pull away at 18-13, but Carmi-White County (33-7) came back to tie it at 19 and soon after won the set. The Bulldogs carried that momentum into the third and cruised to the victory.

STM went into Friday night on a six-match win streak, its longest of the season. The Sabers were playing their best volleyball when it mattered most, further highlighting their recent history of postseason success.

Dalton coached STM from 2012-14 and just finished his first year back with the program after a stint coaching St. Teresa. He wasn't on staff when STM won it all in 2017 and 2021, but this was as close as he's ever gotten to CEFCU Arena with the Sabers. He called it one of his better seasons as a volleyball coach, and while it stings now, he'll look back on it with pride soon.

"We had a good season," Dalton said. "We weren't very deep. We did a lot of training, fixed some holes and made a run here at the end. In about a week or two, I'll be able to appreciate it."