(Adam Vogler/Southeast Missourian)
"This was a tough end to a great season," admitted Lady Chiefs head coach Kinsey Harms. "I know how much they wanted this season to be special. I hope they will learn to accept this moment for what it was and to not hold too much disappointment and frustration for the experience."
It says a lot about the high standards of the Santa Fe program that its 18th Final Four appearance -- the most of any Class 1 school and third overall behind Incarnate Word (23) of St. Louis and Hermann (19) -- wasn't enough to celebrate.
The fifth-ranked Lady Chiefs got off to a strong start Friday with a 25-18, 25-9 romp over Osceola behind freshman Kylie Limback's 10 kills and 2.5 blocks. Santa Fe had only three attack errors in 68 attempts for a .279 percentage, with junior Brooke Barnett providing 19 assists and sophomore Lexi Smith knocking down six shots and pulling up five.
The Lady Indians got five spikes from sophomore Brooke Wilson and seven saves by junior Kaitlyn Schrock.
The Lady Chiefs battled to a split with No. 7 Bernie in the second pool contest, claiming a 25-23 win in the first set, but dropping the second one, 26-24.
Smith put down 15 shots and senior Chelsea Winter came up with 12 digs to go along with her nine kills without an error. After hitting at a .283 clip the first game, Santa Fe's efficiency dropped to .205 the second.
Junior Tori Lowrey and senior Ellen Snider combined for 15 kills for the Lady Mules.
Sixth-ranked Winona, which didn't drop a set in its first two matches, continued to roll to finish the preliminaries as the top seed -- bearing the Lady Chiefs, 25-19, 25-21, as sophomore Rachel Holthaus dropped in 13 shots and provided 12 assists and senior Adrean Reynolds came up with 12 saves.
As it did against Bernie, Santa Fe committed 10 attack errors. Winter, Limback and Smith provided 21 of the team's 23 kills -- Smith also coming up with 11 digs and 2.5 blocks.
Because both teams were 1-1-1 in pool matches, 3-3 in games won and had split their head-to-head meeting with no net point differential, Santa Fe and Bernie had to return to the court for a tiebreaker.
Lowrey and Wilson made four shots, neither with an error, as the Lady Mules took the set, 25-17, to advance to the championship match Saturday -- when the Lady Wildcats claimed their third state title, 25-21, 25-21.
Santa Fe again had trouble getting its shots down, with a .053 attack percentage, although Winter provided five kills and 14 digs.
"Our biggest fight as coaches this year has been trying to get the girls excited before matches. That's when we play our best," Harms explained. "Bernie came out psyched up and ready to go. We came out a little flat and a little tired."
The Lady Chiefs weren't revived overnight, although they tried to rally Saturday during a 25-19, 28-26 loss to Osceola in the third-place match.
"Everyone who saw us play at sectionals would have known we had the stuff it took to get to that championship match and give Winona, a legitimately solid championship-quality team, a run for their money," Harms said, perhaps summing up Santa Fe's emotional letdown heading into the second day.
Wilson had 16 kills and Schrock 13 saves in the medal round for the Lady Indians (27-13).
Winter made 10 shots, Smith produced nine kills and 10 saves, and freshman McKenzie Phillips pulled up 10 digs for the Lady Chiefs (28-8-2) -- who were out-hit .205 to .074 percent.
"When we struggle with passing, setting and hitting is bound to suffer," Harms said.
Santa Fe had come into the meet with 13 straight wins and high expectations.
"I worry for the players who faced this loss," Harms said. "It will take a lot of hard work and emotional support to help them recover."
Yet, with only two seniors in the line-up, the Lady Chiefs have more than sufficient talent returning -- including all-I-70 Conference performers like Smith and Limback as hitters and Barnett at setter -- to make a run for a third state bid.
"Nothing builds character more than moments like this," Harms said. "I have to be proud of them for all the hard work they've endured."