The Chicago Christian girls volleyball team entered the post-season with a losing record.
On Saturday, the Knights will defend their Class 2A state title.
The Knights rallied from a five-point deficit early in Game 1 before delivering the knockout punch with a decisive victory in Game 2, beating Breese Central 25-23, 25-12 in Friday afternoon's Class 2A semifinal contest at Redbird Arena in Normal.
"It's huge for any program, but for us, it's something remarkable for the players I've been able to coach the last three years," Chicago Christian coach James Garcia said. "They've done a great job and worked very hard to get to this point."
Chicago Christian (23-18) was looking up at a 12-7 deficit in its first game, but kept its composure and rallied to victory behind a strong serving game.
Serving is an aspect of the Knights' game which has been inconsistent at times this fall. It wasn't on Friday.
"We've done a lot of serving in practice," Garcia said. "I think that's what set the stage today."
Chicago Christian's Emily Lindemulder (8 kills) pulled the Knights even at 22-all in the first game before Maggie Kamp's kill gave the team a brief 23-22 lead. Kamp finished with seven kills.
"(Kamp) hit it over the top, through us and all around us," Breese Central coach Jim Cook said. "I knew she could jump."
Breese Central's Maddie Timmerman pulled the Cougars even at 23-23 with a kill of her own, but the Knights finished Breese Central off with points from Emily Workman (24 assists) and Becky DeRuiter.
"It was awesome going in there and getting a hand on almost every one of their hits," DeRuiter said. "We've had good blocking games and bad blocking games and today we were definitely on."
Chicago Christian defeated Breese Central in last year's 2A title match, so there was an incredible amount of pressure from the opening serve.
While the Knights found themselves trailing 12-7 and 22-20, they never panicked and responded in strong fashion.
"I always love working under pressure," Lindemulder said. "It's exciting getting set and doing what you can to put the ball in play or getting it down to the ground."
Breese Central (32-9) never regrouped after losing Game 1, falling behind 4-0 to start Game 2.
"After we won the first game, going back-and-forth, it's tough for a team to take that," Garcia said. "You're coming in with that pressure and you want to win and then you lose that first game to the defending state champion."
The Cougars never responded, pulling to within 5-3, but never getting any closer.
"They seemed to have been taken down a bit in that second game and we were able to take advantage of it," Garcia said.
Chicago Christian scored eight straight points to turn a modest 5-3 advantage early to a 13-3 lead in Game 2. Having already secured a victory in Game 1, the Knights played with less pressure and found great success as a result of it.
"As a leader on the floor, I knew we had to get that first game with a young team," Chicago Christian's Celaine Haan (8 digs) said. "In the second game, we could tell all the players on our side were a liitle more relaxed and when we play relaxed it opens up our options with different sets and running a quicker offense."
"That's another team right there that we don't know anything about," Garcia said. "All we can control is what we do."
Right now, that's winning. So much for not having a winning record in the regular season.
"I'm not amazed because our schedule is so tough that it prepares us so much for the competition that we see at Redbird Arena," Kamp said. "We talked about this a lot in the state championship run, and we knew we came in with what most people would think is a bad record, but it has prepared us a lot.
"We played a lot of 4A and 3A schools, and it's fun to play above our competition, and when we come down to state we get to show everyone how good we are and how the record doesn't matter much."
Now all that matters is a victory over the Lady Raiders.