MOUNT CARMEL -- Monday's match against Fairfield might be the most electric volleyball atmosphere you'll see at the high school level around.
There was considerable buzz in the air, as Mount Carmel was set to play host to a stellar Fairfield group, a Mules team that entered the match 19-1, one many of the Lady Aces were familiar with -- having either played with, or against the girls for several years now.
Mount Carmel Head Volleyball Coach Kelsey Beckerman tethered expectations initially, telling her team she'd like to see them steal a set from the juggernaut Mules and just build from there.
Those expectations were quickly raised once Beckerman's group took the floor. They eventually fell to the Mules in three highly contested sets (25-20, 16-25, 21-25) in what felt like a playoff atmosphere at the Hilltop.
The first set was reminiscent of Mount Carmel's match against Edwards County. Communication can be just as valuable as one's hustle to the ball, and the Lady Aces (11-4) were quick to call out balls they felt were ready to fly out, even ones that would be out by inches. By letting Fairfield make their own mistakes, Mount Carmel seized its advantage.
Trailing 9-4 early in the set, Mount Carmel was ready to throw all they had at the Mules (21-1). The Lady Aces used an 11-3 run to gain a 15-12 advantage, including six straight points at the end of the run. Three points were on errors by Mules, three on a kill by junior McKenna Golden, a kill by junior Allie McPherson and an ace by senior Jessica Wall.
Realizing the set was on the verge of slipping away, Fairfield Coach Chet Snyder quickly signaled for a timeout, as the Lady Aces were in a zone, amped up and had a host of Mount Carmel students emphatically rooting them on.
Fairfield would use another timeout as the lead rose to 18-13, but eventually found their footing and settled. The Mules would reduce the deficit down to 21-19, forcing Beckerman to call a timeout, but Beckerman's timeout settled her girls and readied them to steal a set from the overwhelming favorites.
Just as they had early on in the set, they communicated and allowed Fairfield to make a pair of mistakes, but junior Taya York recorded a clutch kill and senior Madeline Goldman clinched the set victory with an ace.
I'm not sure if it was a matter of underestimating Mount Carmel or what, but Fairfield looked shook in the first set, not looking like their traditionally dominant selves. Mount Carmel certainly deserves their share of praise for factoring into that, showing they're no slouch as regional contenders.
Set number two would be all Fairfield. The Mules took an early 9-0 lead and dominated throughout the set. It was a sloppy set for the Lady Aces, who had a big set victory hangover seemingly and never quite adjusted. Their play was just somewhat lackadaisical, starting with their communication.
Mount Carmel didn't go away without a fight, rallying back and trimming the lead down to 20-15 after a pair of kills by McPherson, but the Mules would run away with it. Beckerman was experimenting across the board on how to adjust to the Mules' overwhelming mesh of length and skill, opting to insert freshman Rilee Riggs into her first varsity action briefly toward the end of the set for Riggs' length.
Set number three was just a matter of who wanted it most, and both teams really wanted it.
It was a battle back and forth, and had it been a best-of-five in Indiana, Mount Carmel would have won it as they had taken a 15-13 lead following a Goldman ace and a kill by McPherson -- but unfortunately this is Illinois and it was also just best-of-three.
"That third set, man, too bad it didn't end at 15, that would've been a little nicer for us." Beckerman laughed about the third set.
Both crowds were in the game, with the Carmel Crazies backing up their Lady Aces. The margin was set at 20-19 in Fairfield's favor after a nice tip kill at the net by Golden, giving Mount Carmel an opportunity to build some momentum and escape with what would have been an enormous upset.
Mount Carmel first had a serve go out, then Fairfield had a serve go out. With such errors it just seemed like nerves were hitting both sides, as they possibly wanted the set just a tad bit too much and were pressing a little bit under the pressure and the electric atmosphere from both sides.
Some uncharacteristic errors by the Lady Aces late in the set allowed for Fairfield to take advantage and seal it, but it was a tremendous showing by Mount Carmel, who fell just inches from handing Fairfield its second loss of the season.
"Some errors at the end, we were getting tired, it's hot in here tonight," Beckerman said. "Those aren't excuses per say, they're just we've yet to do that with it being this warm and going through with somebody like that. I think that we were making adjustments, they were making adjustments and towards the end their adjustments just worked better than ours did."
For Fairfield, Mount Carmel native, junior Chloe Britton was tremendous. Her setting ability, her versatility and aggressiveness at her position was tremendous. She was easily the MVP of the match for the Mules.
Mount Carmel was led by Goldman's two aces, McPherson's 11 kills, senior Kassidy Drone's 22 assists, a block each by senior Madi Merritt and York, as well as a team-high 15 digs by senior Addie Drone.
"I told the girls in the locker room, I'm not sure if I could ask for more tonight," Beckerman spoke of her team. "We've been working on some things that we knew we'd be coming up on with them. When you've played with and against these girls as long as we have, you get an idea of what to expect from Nadia, from Lexie, from Chloe, things like that. In practice we've been working on those things and the girls executed tonight, I couldn't have asked more from them. . . . I'm kind of speechless right now, I'm really proud of how they played tonight. They wanted this one, now we know what to expect in postseason."
There's certainly a lot of good to take away from tonight. When the Lady Aces were communicating, they had active bodies, showed tremendous defense and passing ability, showing flashes of just how good they can actually be. Though the second set was rough, it was easily the best volleyball they've played in one match all season.
As for if there's such a thing as a good loss, Beckerman was quick to offer her take.
"Absolutely," Beckerman said. "Obviously the letters should be different on the card, you want it to be a W, but just really proud. Also just what an awesome crowd to play in front of tonight. Both sides, and that helps the momentum too. When the student section gets into it, the whole crowd gets into it. It was a fun atmosphere."
Mount Carmel falls to 11-4 with the loss, while Fairfield improved to 20-1.
Beckerman's Lady Aces will face yet another stout challenge in their next match -- a former Big Eight foe, Mount Vernon (Ind.).
The Wildcats enter the match with a 14-6 record, boasting a 2-1 record against Big Eight foes this year and enter having won five of their last six matches. They'll be another tall task for the Lady Aces, with the match coming on Thursday in Mount Vernon at around 7 p.m.
Beckerman says the goal once again is to steal a set from such a quality group, but the expectations are starting to change for this senior-laden group. With how they played on Monday it leaves you wondering as to just how good they can be. Regional title good? It's certainly a possibility if they piece together the consistency.
"Anytime we can compete with them -- it was the same attiude we had going into this match, if we can compete with them and make it difficult for them then we're going to count that as a good thing for us," Beckerman said. "We were able to do that tonight and then some so if we're able to do that with Mount Vernon -- we've yet to get a set from them, so we'll be trying to get 1, 2 or 3."
Then next week is a long week for us, we have three matches. Luckily we're at home twice, on the road once. Should be wins for us, just based on matches in previous years with them, but we'll see. Right now we're sitting pretty, I like where we're at."
MC -- 25 16 21
F -- 20 25 25
Aces: Goldman (2), McPherson (1), Wall (1), Golden (1).
Kills: McPherson (11), Goldman (8), York (5), Golden (3).
Assists: K. Drone (22), Merritt (1), Goldman (1), Wall (1).
Blocks: Merritt (1), York (1).
Digs: A. Drone (15), McPherson (12), Goldman (6), K. Drone (4), Hannah (4), Merritt (3), York (2), Wall (2), Golden (1).