Pekin finishes third at conference tourney

The Pekin volleyball team was struggling recently before they headed into their conference tournament on Thursday, Sept. 21. Pekin would go on to win three of its four matches to have a higher seeding in the conference finals on September 23.

Before they could get to the finals, they'd have to play through four teams, the first being Burlington-Notre Dame. Pekin played a close first set, but eventually edged out a 21-19 win. ND responded with a commanding 21-13 second set win.

"I thought we gave up that set, which was disappointing," Panthers coach Ken Hutchinson said. "We only did that one other time this year."

Not wanting to lose their first match, the Panthers got some key plays down the stretch. The third set was another close one, but Pekin won 15-11.

Haley Gambell had nine kills, five digs and four assists in the win. Ellie Ledger and Faith Oostra combined for five of the team's six blocks.

Pekin played a much better match against Columbus Junction, and had a much better result. The Panthers put them away early, not allowing any chance of allowing Columbus to gain any traction.

Kennedy Coleman had the best performance all-round in the win. She finished with eight assists, four digs and three aces.

Pekin had some trouble early in the first set against their next opponent, Louisa Muscatine. LM hung around for a portion of the first set, but couldn't finish. The Panthers took the first set 21-15, and made quicker work in a 21-12 second set.

Maci Gambell was a factor on both sides of the ball, totaling seven digs, six kills and one block.

The last opponent the Panthers faced was West Burlington, by far the toughest match of the day. Pekin found itself on the other end of things in the first set, unable to get their offense going. West Burlington went on to take the set 21-12. Pekin came out with some fire, trying to avoid being swept in the finale. Though they put up a fight, the Panthers couldn't close out West Burlington, falling in the second set 21-19.

"They played a great game and hit with tons of confidence in front of their home crowd," Hutchinson said. "If we could have identified their hitters, we could've had a chance to win. It gave us something to work on in practice."

The Panthers came out of Thursday with a second-place finish, advancing them to the final.

The first opponent they faced on Saturday was Danville, a team they'd beaten twice already, four sets to one. It wasn't easy for Pekin to put them away, winning the first and third sets by two points each (25-23, 25-17). A third set was necessary after Danville forced the second to go past regulation. They would go on to win it 32-30.

With confidence brimming, the Panthers faced a talented New London team. The hitters from New London got to Pekin, racking up points and causing errors by the Panthers. New London would go on to beat Pekin 25-18, 25-16.

"We made 12 hitting errors, and they capitalized on every one of them," Hutchinson said. "We lost our confidence to swing, you can't just tip the ball against a team that covers as well as they did."

The loss put Pekin in the consolation side of the tournament, a fourth place finish the worst possible scenario. It wouldn't be easy, as they had to face West Burlington for the second time in three days. The Panthers came out with a vengeance, taking a close first set win 25-20.

As expected, West Burlington fought back in the second with a 25-19 win, and tied things at one set each. Pekin got the start they needed in the final set, able to stave off West Burlington 15-10.

"It was encouraging to see us come out and refocus," Hutchinson said. "I thought we did a much better job identifying their hitters and got some confidence back with some of our swings."

The victory over West Burlington resulted in Pekin taking 3rd place in the conference finals, their best finish in over a decade.

They will look to continue their push to the end of the season, hosting Winfield-Mt. Union on September 28.