STERLING — Although the music at the postseason dance may not have lasted as long as they would have liked it to, the Princeton Tigresses did get to dance.
The Tigresses fell to mighty Rock Falls 25-13 in the first set of Tuesday’s regional semifinal contest at Musgrove Fieldhouse and were tinkering on being blown away in the second, trailing 17-7.
Instead, they turned up the dance music and battled their way back within three points before falling 25-19.
“That’s what I told them, leave it on the floor. If not for me, obviously your teammates and definitely the seniors,” PHS coach Andy Puck said. “You want to leave it on the floor. You don’t want to wake up tomorrow wondering what if. I think they’ll be satisfied.
“Obviously this hurts. (Rock Falls is) a heckuva team; they beat us three times this year. We did everything we possibly could to scratch and crawl and hang around and score points. But they’re better than us. That’s all it is to us.”
The Lady Rockets played the part of the heavy favorite for most of the night. They struck up leads of 14-7, 17-10 and 23-12 in the first set. PHS managed a 3-1 lead in the second set, only to have another Rocket launch go off for a 17-7 Rock Falls’ advantage.
Puck hesitantly made a switch at setter with senior McCaela May checking into the floor. The move seemed to provide a spark as the Tigresses sided out, and Katherine Pranka strung three points together, including an ace to make 17-11.
Junior setter Michelle Kelly (13 assists) re-entered, and the Tigresses’ surge continued, inching closer at 18-13 and then 20-15. Senior Heidi James served for two points, including an ace to bring PHS within 21-18.
Things got just a little too close for the Lady Rockets, some of whom played key roles as sophomores during Princeton’s miraculous comeback against Rock Falls in the sectional semifinals in 2010.
Puck said it’s hard to say if any of the Rock Falls players, who were then sophomores remembered the 2008 contest, joking that they “probably forgot about it the next day.” Rock Falls coach Shiela Mammoser surely didn’t.
“Couple years ago, Princeton came back and bit us. They’re tough. Andy’s got those girls going, and you can’t take anything for granted,” she said. “I thought we played good, but didn’t think we played our best by any means.”
The Tigresses stuck within 22-19 before the Linsey Brown sided out for the Lady Rockets. Two final Rocket launches off Tigress blocks ended the set at 25-19.
“They out-served us; they out-hit us; they sided out better than us. You can’t compete with that. But we hung around,” Puck said. “(We showed) a lot of heart. That’s what this program, I’m proud to say, has become.”
The loss ended Princeton’s first run in the Class 3A postseason ranks, a change in the IHSA classification format that caught the program by surprise in June.
“They threw a wrench at us in June and moved us up a class, but we were ready to play,” Puck said. “The IHSA says this is where we belong. So what do you do; what do you?”
Rock Falls (26-10) will now have to go through an outstanding Sterling team on its home court to take the regional championship Thursday. The Golden Warriors crushed Mendota Tuesday 25-14, 25-13.
“The winner of this will go to supersectionals. I’m signing off on that,” Puck said.
Tiger tales: Pranka led PHS with four kills, and Emmalee Sears, Becca Hult and Ashley Farraher added three each. Junior libero Mollie Bates chipped in nine digs … Seniors making their last appearance in uniform for the Tigresses included Emmalee Sears, Pranka, May and James.
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