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Illinois girls volleyball state spotlight: Edwardsville uses balance for return to Class 4A final four

Illinois girls volleyball state spotlight: Edwardsville uses balance for return to Class 4A final four

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Senior Gabby Saye had a special guest as she and her Edwardsville High girls volleyball teammates took the floor against Huntley last Friday.

Saye’s sister, Camrey, was able to attend. Camrey doesn’t get to many of Gabby’s matches because of her schedule as a nurse, but the Class 4A super-sectional with a trip to state on the line was a big one.

“I think it for her it was definitely like an emotional experience to kind of like relive that moment and she was just really excited for us,” Gabby said.

Gabby Saye is the youngest of three Saye sisters to wear the Edwardsville orange and black on a volleyball court. Camrey was the first.

The siblings were born with volleyball in their blood. Their mother played in college and their parents served as their coaches as they developed.

And after Edwardsville’s 25-12, 25-21 sweep of Huntley, the siblings have one other thing in common as Camrey was a freshman on the 2010 Tigers team, the only other Edwardsville volleyball squad to advance to the state tournament.

Edwardsville (33-7) will take on Chicago McAuley in the Class 4A semifinals at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University at 7 p.m. Friday. McAuley has won 15 state championships, though its last title and state tournament appearance was in 2016.

Big sister had some advice after the win.

“She just told me to just really enjoy it and just play hard,” Gabby Saye said. “Really just take it all in and have fun.”

This group of Tigers has had plenty of fun this season.

Saye leads a balanced attack averaging 3.63 kills per set. Emma Garner (2.74 kills), Sydney Davis (1.65 kills), Ava Waltenberger (1.45 kills), Sydney Harris (1.38 kills) and Kloi Karban (1.34) round out an offense that keeps the opposing block guessing.

“We're in a unique situation where at any given time on the front row we have three attackers that can put a ball away, which you don't usually see,” Edwardsville coach Heather Ohlau said.

Setter Lexie Griffin and Madison Vieth combine to average almost 11 assists per set, while Kaitlyn Conway leads the team’s serve receive and organizes the back row defense.

Ohlau said the Tigers took advantage of an eight-match spring season played in April because of COVID-19 pandemic.

“They never lost that volleyball mindset,” Ohlau said. “By having that regular season in the spring and then finishing out their club season in the summer and having summer workouts and then leading right into this season, it seemed like they'd ever really lost that volleyball mentality.”

Aside from hosting its annual tournament that features area powers from both sides of the river, Edwardsville played twice in the Chicago area.

The second trip was to Plainfield Central and resulted in a third-place finish for Edwardsville.

A 25-22, 20-25, 25-20 win over Nazareth Academy during the tournament made believers out of the Tigers.

“We saw that if we can put up a solid block and we can keep balls off the floor, we can hang with these teams up north,” Conway said. “That game was a big turning point for us as a team to just show us that we can do it, we can go far.”

That belief and confidence will be crucial against Mother McAuley.

“They've got some pretty good hitters,” Ohlau said. “We have some footage on them that the girls watch, but the other thing I do know is that they're beatable. They've lost six matches, so it's not outside the realm of possibilities, but it's going to come down to our girls playing a fairly clean game and just taking control of every opportunity.”

And having fun.

The Tigers are at their best when they are enjoying themselves. That includes singing songs together during warmups and picking each other up through the highs and lows of a match.

“When we're having fun, everything is different,” Saye said. “I think that we play better, and I think that when we're having fun, we will win.”

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