PORT BYRON, Ill. — Averi Leitzen might have been the smallest player on the court. But nobody produced two bigger points for Fulton on Tuesday night.
Leitzen opened the third set with an ace, giving the Steamers a lead they never lost as they knocked off second-seeded Riverdale on the Rams’ home court to advance to Thursday’s finals of the Illinois Class 2A Riverdale Regional volleyball tournament. The third-seeded Steamers (12-17-3) won 25-18, 29-25, 25-16 and will face fifth-seeded Prophetstown for the title.
“Having Averi serve those (two points) was huge,” Fulton coach Stacy Germann said. “This team, I don’t know if it could’ve come back (if Riverdale established the early edge).”
The Rams had the momentum heading into the third game. After dropping the first set, they scored the first four points in the second and led all the way, with the exception of a 10-10 tie.
But Leitzen, a sophomore defensive specialist who is listed on the roster at 5 feet, 2 inches, got the Steamers rolling with back-to-back points in the decisive third game.
“Yes I do (think that stopped Riverdale’s momentum),” said Leitzen, who led the Steamers with 12 service points.
“That’s huge to know you have the lead from the get-go,” said senior Rachael Beiermann, who moments later added another ace in a three-point run that stretched Fulton’s lead to 5-1.
“Our serving helped us a lot,” Germann said. “We practiced serving short yesterday.”
Fulton continued to pour it on on its next rotation. Betsy Leonard had a pair of kills on each side of one by Chelsea Lesniewski as the Steamers extended the lead to 8-2.
The Rams tried to recover but got only as close as four points. When another late run produced five points to push the advantage to 23-12, it was just a matter of time before the Steamers were celebrating.
“We just wanted it to end,” Beiermann said. “It definitely dragged on.”
It finally ended when Ann Renkes knocked down a free ball for the 25th point.
“It’s amazing,” Leitzen said.
Even though they played poorly on the same floor earlier in the season, the Steamers came in with some confidence because they had beaten the Rams in Fulton for a regular-season split and their first win against them in a while.”
“That raised our confidence a lot,” said Beiermann, who wound up with nine kills, 17 assists and three aces, leading or tying the team in each category. “It’s nice when you get a win against them.”
The teams traded the first 10 points of the match before a kill by Lesniewski started a four-point Fulton run. She followed with an ace, then a kill by Jamie Huennekens and a Riverdale hitting error stretched the lead to 9-5.
“We came out in Game 1 and our girls had so much energy,” Germann said. “The last time on this court was our worst game of the season.”
This time, Riverdale had trouble getting its offense going around the block of 6-foot sophomore Betsy Leonard and her teammates.
“We knew we had to come out strong,” Leonard said. “Riverdale wanted to win on its home court, especially in the regionals.”
But Leonard added to the Rams’ early deficit as she combined with Beiermann and Jamie Huennekens on back-to-back blocks that increased the lead to 13-6.
“For my block, I try to get out as fast as I can,” said Leonard, who had three blocks to go with her nine kills. “We’ve worked a lot on closing the block.”
The Steamers carried their energy the rest of the first set, leading by as much as 19-10 before Riverdale whittled the gap to 22-18. But, Fulton scored the final three points to finish the set.
“The key was our high energy,” Beiermann said.
That energy seemed to drain away in the second game, though.
“I don’t know what happened in the second game,” Leonard said. “We were in the right spot but not moving our feet enough.”
Riverdale scored the first four points, capped by an ace by Caroline May. Fulton battled back, eventually pulling even at 10 after back-to-back kills by Beiermann. But the Rams reclaimed the lead on the next point and never lost it.
“In Game 2, the girls looked tired,” Germann said. “I told them going into Game 3 that it’s do or die.”
The players chose “do,” and Leitzen’s serve gave them just the start they needed.
FULTON 25-20-25, RIVERDALE 18-25-16
Fulton statistical leaders
Kills — Betsy Leonard 9, Chelsea Lesniewski 9, Rachael Beiermann 9. Assists — Beiermann 17, Olivia Edfors 13. Digs — Averi Leitzen 13, Edfors 8, Lesniewski 6. Blocks — Leonard 3. Ace serves — Beiermann 3, Leitzen 1, Huennekens 1.