Fatima advances to Class 2 volleyball Final Four

WESTPHALIA, Mo. - After suffering through a gutwrenching, emotional roller-coaster of a Saturday, the Fatima Lady Comets got the only thing that would make the day worth it -- a return trip to the volleyball Final Four.

The Lady Comets had to survive a pair of three-set matches in the sectional/quarterfinal setup on their home floor, ultimately vanquishing the Hermann Lady Bearcats and Lutheran: St. Charles Lady Cougars to move on.

The day started out with the Lady Comets falling into a hole and then having to scratch and claw their way to a 23-25, 25-21, 25-23 win over Hermann in the sectional round. It ended with Fatima almost having things come too easy in the first game of the quarterfinal before emerging with a 25-10, 22-25, 25-17 win over Lutheran: St. Charles.

Fatima coach Mark Bockstruck tried to downplay the craziness of the day after the two victories.

"You've got to prepare for state, right?" he asked with a smile.

It wasn't just the mental toll of the day that affected the Lady Comets. Middle hitter JoAnna Muenks battled cramps in her calves the entire second match, while outside hitter Chelsea Skidmore got sick midway through the final game of the day.

"I think she was dehydrated -- she couldn't see," Bockstruck said. "It's a problem when your hitters can't see.

"So I had to put in a freshman (Kenadi Huhn) ... and she was overcome with emotion before she even took the court, she started crying because she didn't want to play. You just have to regain focus and say, 'It's just like practice, it's our gym, just do it like you've been practicing with us.' She got a kill block (her first play). I told her if we win and she did her job, I'd give her a varsity letter. So she earned it."

Muenks said the team just had to play as well as it could for as long as it could.

"It was just highs and lows," she said. "When we clicked, we clicked, and when we didn't, we didn't. We had to get out of those ruts."

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In the first match of the day, Lutheran handled Whitfield 25-18, 25-14.

Fatima and Hermann followed with one of the most entertaining matches you'll ever see. The two evenly matched teams went back and forth from the get-go, as Fatima eventually held a slim 73-69 edge in total points won.

The Lady Comets never trailed in the decisive third game, but the Lady Bearcats did cut the lead to 22-21 and 24-23. But a kill by Kayla Nilges after an extremely long point ended the win and sparked a celebration worthy of the end of the day, even though Fatima's work wasn't done by a long shot.

"Beating Hermann is always huge, always huge," Bockstruck said. "The fact you can get your adrenaline pumping that much ... and then have to turn around and play again? You go from crying, because everybody is in a dogpile in the middle, just so happy they won, to having to refocus and play again."

Muenks racked up a match-high 13 kills against Hermann, while Nilges chipped in with nine. Brianna Kempker led all players with 29 assists and she also amassed six kills.

Muenks said that win paid dividends right away, as the Lady Comets turned around and thumped Lutheran 25-10 in a first set that wasn't even that close.

"Hermann was an extremely tough match," she said. "We played well that first game (against Lutheran) because Hermann challenged us so much."

Bockstruck said the lengthy win over Hermann actually helped against Lutheran.

"The advantage we had was they sat for so long that they came out flat," he said. "That definitely worked to our advantage at the beginning."

But the wind quickly went out of Fatima's sails, as the Lady Comets never led in the second game. But they did manage to cut the lead to one point on two different occasions.

"They started fighting their way back," Bockstruck said. "What's really important is they built some momentum if we were going to go to a third game."

It didn't appear that way when the Lady Comets fell behind 5-1 in the decisive game. But they responded with a 15-4 run and never looked back.

Kempker had a terrific all-around match, handing out 33 assists to go with five kills and four blocks. Muenks had 14 kills, Nilges had nine and Morgan Bax had seven.

Muenks had three aces, while Anna Bonnot, Ashlynn Harmon and Nilges had two apiece.

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One year after finishing second in Class 2, the Lady Comets are on their way back to Cape Girardeau for the Final Four.

"We knew we wanted to be here, but there's always that doubt in your mind -- 'It's so much work, can we really do it?' But being in this situation is unbelievable."

Fatima (33-4) will join St. Pius X: Festus (32-3), Mountain Grove (27-8-2) and Bishop LeBlond (35-1-2) on Friday for round-robin play at the Show Me Center. The championship and third-place matches are set for Saturday.

"I most definitely like the week of training rather than the three days you have to prepare for sectionals," Bockstruck said. "The big thing is the fact we're going to know very little about the teams we're going up against. The advantage we have is they know very little about us, too. So I guarantee you all the coaches will be shooting e-mails out to everybody, trying to get an idea of what they'll see. Believe me, I'm sure Blair Oaks wants to prepare all kinds of information (about us)."

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