By Matt Le Cren
For the Bugle
For the Bugle
Downers Grove North junior Payton Wendt enjoyed one of the best games of her volleyball career Thursday night and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The 6-foot middle hitter had four solo blocks and three kills, most of which at came at crucial junctures, to help the Trojans beat Lyons Township 25-13, 25-21 to win their own Class 4A regional championship.
It is the first regional title since 2013 for top-seeded Downers North, which advanced to the Glenbard West Sectional semifinals against either York or St. Francis.
“I thought Payton really picked it up,” Downers North star Clare Delaplane said. “She was closing the block, working hard and I felt like this was definitely one of her best games of the season.”
Downers North coach Mark Wasik agreed.
“We’ve been working a lot on her blocking and she’s really stuck with it,” Wasik said. “She’s had some frustrating matches in the past where she’s really gotten on herself for it, but she has bounced back and it’s paying off for her. Now we’re seeing the fruits of her labor.”
Wendt had back-to-back blocks followed by a kill which triggered a 6-0 run that gave the Trojans (25-12) a 16-7 lead in the first set. She added two more during another 6-0 run, which she capped with an assist on Maddie Degiorgio’s kill which got North to game point.
The eighth-seeded Lions (18-18) won the next two points, but Wendt finished the game with a kill off a set from senior Elizabeth Dunlap.
“(I was) just really pushing it because I really wanted it,” Wendt said. “It helps being on your own court.”
Indeed, Wendt was continuing a family tradition in helping the Trojans win a regional at home. Her father, Brad, was a junior forward on the boys basketball team that upset Downers Grove South to win a regional championship on the same court in 1987.
“The time that I’ve been here we haven’t won (a regional), so it’s something special,” Wendt said. “I think we did it for each other.”
Indeed, this was a complete team effort by the Trojans, who had to literally dig deep to rally past the Lions (18-18) in the second game.
LT boasts two Division I senior hitters in Providence-bound outside Emma Fink and 6-2 middle Nicolette Jones, a Duquesne recruit. They combined for only nine kills, but Fink had two consecutive spikes to give the Lions a 12-8 lead and another that made it 16-13.
Then libero Kessie Olekanma made a spectacular dig, swinging her left arm to connect with a ball just before it hit the floor and sending it over the net for an improbable kill. The Trojans scored the next four points on Margaret Mahlke’s serve and never trailed again.
LT pulled within 21-20 but the Villanova-bound Delaplane delivered the last of her eight kills, which tied her with Degiorgio for match-high honors, and Jade Casper followed with two straight kills.
Two plays later, Mahlke ended it with a kill.
“Finally, fourth time’s a charm,” Delaplane said. “We said after the first set that we felt like everything was going right for us. We just had to kick it up another notch the second set.
“The first set we did amazing. Everything was flowing – setting, passing, serving, hitting. Then the second set LT came back roaring and once we got to 16 we just pushed and we did very well.”
Wasik was thrilled with the way the Trojans dispatched their conference rival.
“LT came out with a no-lose attitude in that second game,” Wasik said. “They were digging a lot of great balls, they played some really good defense.
“Their system was winning because we knew where they were going to be and it put our back against the wall a little bit, but the scrappiness and the play where Kessie threw a ball over diving, that was a huge turning point. It deflated them and that was the start of a run that we never looked back on.”
Now Delaplane and other seniors like Olekanma and Dunlap, who had 23 assists, have a memory they can always look back on with pride.
“It couldn’t really get any better,” Delaplane said. “It’s nice because it is home, a lot of students could come. It’s just amazing.”