Southeastern’s injury-riddled season comes to end with sectional semifinal loss

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CONCORD, Ill. — Behind the bleachers in the Triopia High School gymnasium, Southeastern volleyball coach Tim Kerr hugged his players as they exited the locker room Monday night.

He offered words of appreciation, encouragement and consolation following his Suns’ 25-18, 25-21 loss to Decatur Unity in the Class 1A Concord Sectional semifinals.

As Kerr approaches three decades at the helm of the Southeastern program, the hugs he shared might have meant a little more after the journey to reach the sectional semifinals.

“I told the girls in my 27 years as a varsity volleyball coach, this is the craziest year I’ve ever had,” Kerr said. “Having to make new lineups up almost every single night, and having to deal with injuries. People who follow us might probably get sick of hearing me saying it, but we have just been riddled with injuries all year long.

“It was a testament to their ability to play and keep the momentum and believing in what they’re doing just to have the good year that we did have.”

The Suns (29-8-1) needed all the grit they had already mustered in advancing to the sectional to work themselves out of early deficits in both sets.

Trading points over the first five serves of the match, Southeastern quickly found itself down 11-3, as the Lions’ Maggye Smith attacked the sidelines for four quick kills. A pair of aces later from Smith, along with some hustle plays that fell in the Lions’ favor, and Southeastern found itself down 21-10.

The Suns’ fight came in the form of its well-rounded attacking corps, and a mix of youthful energy and upperclassmen leadership.

A pair of Unity Christian errors gave Southeastern two quick points, and a package of kills from Kenzie Gronewold, Tegan Rigg and Kara Stephens finally gave the Suns some momentum.

After a free ball from Rylie Van Fleet fell in the middle of the Lions’ defense, a kill from Gronewold closed the 11-point gap to 22-19. Southeastern came no closer in the opening set.

The run was enough to bolster the large following of Southeastern fans that traveled to Cass County, but the Suns’ woes flared back up in the second set. Unity Christian opened the set with two aces on mishandled serves, and a Southeastern service error gave the Lions a 5-1 lead.

The Lions tallied eight service aces in the match, including five in the second set. Combined with six uncharacteristic service errors by the Suns, Southeastern pulled no closer than a 20-16 deficit in the second, sparked by back-to-back kills by senior Abigail Shaffer, who finished with six kills and nine assists.

“That’s something we try to take pride in — and usually do a pretty good job in — in not making those unforced errors. And tonight, for whatever reason, we did,” Kerr said. “We didn’t miss one serve in the whole regional. It was one of those things, where all of a sudden tonight, we kind of got out of sorts. I think our kids tried to do a little too much. At the same time, we want to serve a little tougher against better teams, as well.

“I wish we could have erased the first eight or 10 points of each set. We were right there with them. Proud of the way we came back and played hard and made a set of both of them.”

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