Charging to the top: Illini West wins Lady Suns Classic

The Illini West volleyball players celebrate after beating Rushville-Industry to capture the Lady Suns Classic championship Saturday night at Southeastern High School in Augusta, Ill. | H-W Photo/Thorn Compton
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 8, 2019 12:20 am Updated: Sep. 8, 2019 8:47 am

AUGUSTA, Ill. -- Momentum carried the Illini West volleyball team through a two-set victory over Liberty in its first match of championship bracket of the Lady Suns Classic on Saturday, and that continued through to the first set of its second match for a 25-11 advantage over Rushville-Industry.

One set away from a Classic championship for the first time since 2012, the Chargers took their foot off the gas a little bit and the Rockets took advantage, winning the second set 25-16. That slump lingered in the beginnings of the third set, but with the score tied at 7, sophomore Ava Bliss stepped up to score the team's next three points with kills, and that was just the spark the Chargers needed.

Illini West would run away and hide in the third set and finish off the tournament with a 25-11, 16-25, 25-14 victory over Rusvhille-Industry, which clinched the title as the only undefeated team remaining on the weekend.

"We have been preparing for this for so long and it was so nice to apply it and get the win," Bliss said after posing for many, many photos in the Southeastern High School gym.

Bliss finished with 18 total kills in the two games, including a team-high seven kills in the opening 25-13, 25-20 victory over Liberty.

Fellow sophomore Megan Harrell was just as spectacular. Harrell had a match-high 12 kills against the Rockets and 16 total kills on the final day, and she recorded seven total aces. Three of those seven came in the final six points against Rushville-Industry, when Harrell served back-to-back-to-back aces to extend the lead to 23-14 for the Chargers (9-3).

"I was ready," Harrell said of putting the final stamp on the championship set. "I was ready to finish that game and get a win."

Illini West coach Dakota Flesner said the combination of Harrell and Bliss, as well as sophomore Hallie Ray who had three kills against the Rockets, can cause trouble for many teams.

"They are all so powerful, all three of them. It's almost like they are competing with each other, and not in a bad way either," Flesner said. "It's, ‘Hey, you're not bringing it tonight, I'm bringing it tonight.' It helps us also relax because they are young. We are expected to be inexperienced and make mental errors because we're not used to each other yet, so the good thing with having three sophomores that are just as hard hitting is if one has a down night we have two more to count on. Even if two of them have a down night, we have another to count on."

Both Harrell and Bliss were named to the all-tournament team, but it was junior setter Karli Artman who was named the Most Valuable Player.

Artman finished with 48 total assists in the final two games, including a whopping 34 against Rushville-Industry, and Flesner said her MVP honor was well deserved.

"She is the smartest setter I have ever seen playing at the high school level, ever," Flesner said. "She will take the first ball and set it up, and that's not anything I taught her. She knows who to give the ball to in the perfect moment of the game, who to mix it up to. She does a great job with her fakes, and on top of it if she wasn't a setter I am convinced she could be one of our best passers and even play a libero.

"She's just a heck of a player."

Bliss echoed her coach's thoughts on Artman.

"We definitely couldn't do it without Karli," Bliss said. "She just does so much for us and we are just so thankful for her. We wouldn't be where we are if it wasn't for her."

Liberty finished second in the tournament after going 1-1 on the day and finishing 5-1 overall. The Eagles opened up the day with a 25-12, 25-20 victory over Rushville-Industry before falling to Illini West for its first loss of the Classic.

Izzy Gimm had 18 kills against the Rockets and Paige Knuffman went for 10 kills against the Chargers, and Liberty head coach Sara Schuette said Knuffman provides more than just pop at the net.

"She is an awesome digger and passer," Schuette said. "She's great at serving, she's great all the way around."

Both Gimm and Knuffman were named to the all-tournament team.

Unity was the winner of the gold bracket after defeating West Hancock in three sets, 25-19, 19-25, 15-8, and Southeastern in two sets, 25-19, 25-17. Maya Fuhrman had 47 total assists for the Mustangs in the two games, while Krista Schrader had nine kills, three blocks and two aces against the Titans and Ashlynn Arnsman had eight kills and three blocks against the Suns. Southeastern defeated West Hancock 25-4, 25-19 in the third game of the bracket.

Payson Seymour took the top spot in the silver bracket with a 25-22, 25-12 victory over Central and a 25-15, 28-26 win over Beardstown. Livia Perry had 30 total digs for the Indians and Abby Coonrod had 16 total kills in the two games. Central defeated Beardstown 25-16, 27-25 to take second in the bracket.

Brown County was the winner of the bronze bracket with a 25-16, 22-25, 15-8 win over Western and a 25-19, 25-20 victory over South Fulton. Kaci McKeon had 4 total digs for the Hornets and Katey Flynn had 11 total kills and two solo blocks. Western beat South Fulton 25-21, 25-15 to finish second in the bracket.