BELLEVILLE — At first, Althoff senior setter Mary Wessel wasn't sure how to handle five weeks on the sidelines.

Slowed by a foot injury, the fiery competitor finally found a way to help out.

"I was there for every practice, every game," she said. "I was almost like an assistant coach. I could watch and let the girls know what was going on from a player's perspective.

It was fun — but it still wasn't as fun as being out there."

Wessel's coaching days are over.

The 5-foot-9-inch spark plug returned to the lineup on a full-time basis during the 22nd annual Metro Classic Tournament on Friday and Saturday at Belleville East High.

And she did so with a bang.

Wessel handed out an eye-popping 32 assists to help the Crusaders to a 25-22, 25-17 win over Mater Dei in the final of the power-packed 18-team affair on Saturday afternoon.

Althoff (20-2) won its seventh in a row and claimed its third successive tournament championship.

Wessel's addition helped kick an already potent offense into high gear. She added 12 digs and three kills to an impressive floor game.

"All the girls were excited to have her back on the floor again," Althoff coach Tony Miner said. "It definitely helps the flow of the team a lot."

Miner was quick to point out that senior Abby Lanter did a fine job of running the 5-1 offense while Wessel was nursing a bruised tibia suffered in preseason practice and aggravated during the club soccer campaign.

But Wessel is familiar with the offense having guided the team to a second-place finish in Class 3A last season.

"With her out there, we're just so comfortable," said senior hitter Karinna Gall, who was named MVP of the two-day tournament. "She's strong when it comes to leadership. When we change plays, she'll grab you and tell you what to do — and you just do it."

The Wessel-Gall synergy was never more evident than against Mater Dei (18-5). Gall pounded home a match-high 14 kills — nine of them came on assists from Wessel.

"She does most of the yelling," Gall said. "We're all seniors and we all take responsibility — but she gets us fired up."

Wessel is headed to play soccer at Illinois State University next year.

Althoff, which will compete in Class 4A this season after winning a state title in 3A two years ago, used a balanced effort to knock off the Knights, who played well, but simply came up short down the stretch.

Mater Dei coach Chad Rakers said the Crusaders' on-court confidence played a key role in the outcome.

"When you've got kids that don't think they're going to win, they know they're going to win, (that) belief can carry you," he said. "And we've got to find that."

Gall, who is headed to Indiana State University, received plenty of help from fellow hitters Katie Wemhoener, Grace Strieker and Payton Jackson, who added five kills each. Senior Nicky Hampton also came up big at the net.

The Crusaders rode the all-around play of Gall to a win in the first set. She had 11 kills and tallied four points from the service line. She had a hand in 11 of her squad's first 18 points.

Althoff parlayed a 7-1 blitz into a 21-14 lead behind two Gall points and a hit from from Wemhoener. Mater Dei climbed to within 24-22 on kills from Sally Albers and Kenadi Barriger and a nifty block by Riley Klebler.

But Jackson ended the opener on a well-placed tip shot.

The Knights bolted out to a 14-10 lead in the nightcap before Althoff scored nine of the next 10 points to take control 19-15. Gall served three of the points. Kills from Hampton and Strieker highlighted the blitz.

Jackson closed the match with a hit off a strong serve from Mia Orlet.

The Crusaders are just starting to round into form with postseason play on the horizon later this month.

"I think we can always get better," Miner said. "I don't think there's a ceiling for this group."

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