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Dircks helps spark Freeburg's return to state semifinals for first time since 2009

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Freeburg High senior Mia Dircks and her teammates had just suffered a disappointing two-set loss at the hands of Breese Central.

The mid-October setback was even more disheartening because the Midgets beat Central on its own court just three weeks earlier.

Yet Dircks put the setback in the rearview mirror literally seconds after the match.

The 5-foot-7-inch right-side hitter had other business in mind.

Dircks immediately headed over to the stands to greet Beckett Krieg, a 5-year-old boy who is locked in a battle with lymphoblastic leukemia. She bent down to look Krieg in the eye before passing along her message.

"I just wanted to show him how much I appreciated him coming to our game," Dircks said. "It was important to let him know that I'm here fighting with him every step of the way. If he's going to come out to watch us, we're going to be there for him."

Dircks didn't take long to put that 25-22, 25-15 defeat into perspective

"Losing isn't fun," Dircks said. "But compared to what he's going through every day, it's just not that important."

The brief post-game meeting came on a night in which Freeburg honored cancer victims and survivors with its annual "Pink Out" match. It also may have served as a turning point in the season for Dircks, who has been on fire ever since.

With the left-handed slugger helping lead the way, Freeburg has advanced to the state tournament for the first time since 2009.

The Midgets (33-7) face IC Catholic of Elmhurst (32-1) in a Class 2A semifinal at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal. Chillicothe (36-3-1) takes on Genoa (35-4) in the other semifinal at noon. The winners meet for the state crown at 1:55 p.m. Saturday.

Dircks has turned it on down the stretch with 50 kills over her last five matches, including a career-high 18 in a win over Mount Carmel in the semifinal round of the Benton Sectional.

"She has just blossomed," Freeburg coach Brooke Kloess said. "Her mindset has totally changed. She's always been able to get us points, but she wasn't always the first option.

"Now, it's like, get it to Mia. Everything she touches she's putting away."

Dicks, a straight-A student, displays a maturity beyond her years. That was never more evident than in her effort to encourage a sick child to fight on minutes after one of the most difficult losses of the year.

"That's just what Mia does, it's how she is," Freeburg senior setter Ella Gagen. "She made a positive out of a negative that night."

Dircks has gone from being a solid front-liner to a dominating two-way presence at the net.

In addition, she has used her leadership skills to put the team on her back over the past few weeks.

"What she's been doing is just amazing," Kloess said. "We've had a lot of injuries and she's been right there to step up."

Dircks' ability to motivate came to the forefront in a thrilling three-set triumph over Pinckneyville in the title game of the Sparta Regional on Oct. 27.

She had just made a hitting error in the third set to give Pinckneyville a 24-21 match-point lead. With the entire campaign on the line, Dircks turned to Gagen right after the miscue.

"I just told her to set me and I'd get that point back," Dircks said.

Dircks promptly pounded the ball home to begin a five-point blitz that enabled the Midgets to capture the deciding set 26-24.

"It just shows the confidence she has out there," Gagen said. "She wanted it and was going to make sure she didn't make a mistake."

Kloess doubted Dircks would have made that request earlier in the season.

"I think she's finally realizing just how good of a player she really is," Kloess said.

Dircks does not plan to pursue volleyball at the collegiate level.

That decision means her competitive career will end this weekend.

"I've been an athlete my whole life," said Dircks, who will attend Missouri State University in Springfield. "I want (sports) to become something I enjoy, I don't want it to become a job. I love Freeburg, this town is everything I've ever wanted. And I love Freeburg volleyball. I'm completely content leaving Freeburg volleyball, especially with a trip to state."

Dircks has been a shining light during a season full of injuries. Kloess said that as many as four opening-day starters have missed significant time.

Junior outside hitter Avery Hesseldenz, who tops the team with 301 kills, is out with a broken leg, which she played on for a couple matches prior to Friday's three-set win over Mater Dei in the Fairfield Super-Sectional.

Once again, Dircks was called upon to pick up the slack. She had 14 kills in that final four clinching win.

"I feel like the team needs me to step up," Dircks said.

Gagen runs the offense with a team-high 606 assists. Senior Kylie Kisgen anchors the defense with 601 digs.

Junior Lindsey Muskopf (254 kills) and senior Bella Borja (227) band with Dirks (199) to add even more firepower up front.

Juniors Kylie Stover, Gracie Mullins and Talya Harrison and sophomore Olivia Kehrer have also made big contributions this season.

The Midgets have a tall task ahead against IC Catholic, which has won 23 successive matches, 19 in straight sets.

But Freeburg has been silencing doubters all season long.

"We're not ready to be done," Gagen said. "And we're not satisfied."

From an Althoff QB to a Villa midfielder, our Athletes of the Week are delivering top performances at the key moments of the season.

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