By Randy Whalen
Anyone who attended the match between the two schools that are not only located a mile-and-a-half from each other, but have also combined to win the past three Class 4A state titles, saw a battle lived up to every expectation.
When it ended 52 minutes after it started, it was two-time defending state champion Marist that was left standing. The RedHawks rallied from a big first set deficit and went on to defeat Mother McAuley 26-24, 25-22 on Sept. 26 at McAuley.
After an 0-4 start, the defeat was only the second loss for McAuley (13-6) in its past 15 matches.
Marist (15-2 through Sept. 28) had lost on its last visit to the Mighty Macs’ hallowed gymnasium in 2017. In fact, that was the RedHawks only loss of the season that year en rout to their first state championship.
"I just knew the whole team knew that we had to have so much energy to win this match," Marist senior outside hitter Maddie Arundel said. "We knew the atmosphere that we were playing in and it's so much fun to play this match."
Arundel made sure of that as she led the way with seven kills, 20 digs, and five aces. Senior right-side hitter Camryn Hannah had six kills and three blocks, sophomore middle hitter Mary Clare Brusek banged five kills and three blocks, while junior setter Nikki Jones had 27 assists and senior libero Mairead Boyle added 19 digs for the RedHawks.
Amia Owolabi, a senior right-side hitter, paced Mother McAuley with six kills and two blocks. Junior outside hitter Connie LeBel had four kills and senior outside hitter Alena Pedroza with three kills contributed on offense while senior setter Emily Weber had eight assists, four digs and two aces and freshman libero Gigi Navarrete added nine digs for the Macs.
With the huge crowd, including the McAuley student section dressed in a boxing theme, it was the RedHawks who fed off the noise to rally.
"Oh yes, 100 percent we used the noise to our advantage," Hannah said of the loud gym. "All week long at practice we played music and had noise real loud to energize us. That made us push harder."
A 6-0 run by McAuley in the opening set, which was aided by four RedHawks errors, gave the Macs a 12-7 lead which eventually stretched to 18-12. But Marist pushed back to tie it at 21-21 on back-to-back aces by Arundel. The Macs were not able to reach a set-point opportunity. Kills by Hannah and Arundel ended the opener.
"We knew what we had to do," Arundel said of rallying to win the opener. "I don't know how I get the aces. It's just practice.”
Trailing 4-1 early, Marist had a 9-2 burst in the second set. Arundel had two kills and once again capped that spurt off with back-to-back aces. McAuley scored three straight points to close within 23-22, but kills from senior outside hitter Avery Jedry and Hannah ended it.
"The second set was a little tough and Nikki and I weren't connecting," Hannah said of her and Jones. "But we did at the end."
Marist coach Jordan Vidovic thought his team’s been-there-before mentality showed through.
"We battled through some inconsistency on our side but stayed the course," he said. "We kept the energy going and used our experience to make it work. Always good to get those games under your belt going forward."
In the meantime, McAuley showed its early-season struggles are in the past.
"Absolutely, we played our butts off. I'm so proud of the strides we made throughout," LeBel said. "We've made a lot of changes and we look forward to continuing to take those things we learned from our losses and get better."
The Macs certainly have.
"I could not be more proud of the them," McAuley coach Jen DeJarld said of her team. "We broke down in serve receive and passing. But once we get that down we will be hanging with the best of them again.
"This environment is amazing for women's sports. They don't have this many fans at most college matches. It was a just a great environment and a high-level match."
Earlier in the week on Sept. 24, Marist defeated Nazareth 25-22, 25-19 in an East Suburban Catholic Conference matchup in LaGrange Park to even its record at 1-1 in the league.
That same day, the Mighty Macs defeated St. Ignatius 22-25, 25-18, 25-23 in a GCAC tussle and improved to 2-0 in the league. LeBel (nine kills), Owolabi (five kills, 13 blocks), and junior middle blocker Abby Sarich (six kills, 17 blocks) led the way.
McAuley closed the week by capturing the Rich East Tournament with a 25-18, 25-23 victory over Lemont on Sept. 28 in the finals. Owolabi and LeBel were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Owolabi (seven kills, three blocks), junior middle blocker Molly Boyd (four kills, two blocks), Lebel (six kills, 12 digs), Pedroza (five kills, three blocks), Weber (14 assists), senior setter Devyn Petrowski (seven assists), and Navarette (eight digs) all contributed.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Macs defeated Loyola 25-14, 22-25, 25-15 in the semifinals.
On Sept. 27, McAuley had victories over Riverside-Brookfield, 25-10, 25-13; Andrew, 26-24, 25-17; and Downers Grove South; 25-11, 25-14.