Oak Park and River Forest's Keira Kleidon (23) returns a serve against Willowbrook during the Class 4A Hinsdale Central Sectional Championship, Nov. 1, 2023 in Hinsdale. | Steve Johnston

Entering the IHSA Class 4A Hinsdale Central Sectional final against Willowbrook,  Nov. 1, the OPRF girls volleyball team had every reason to feel confident about winning its first sectional title since 2013, given that the Huskies had dealt the Warriors their only defeat on Sept. 29 in three sets.

Unfortunately, the adage about the difficulty of defeating an opponent twice in a season rang true in the rematch as Willowbrook rallied to defeat OPRF 23-25, 25-23, and 25-12.

“This one’s going to hurt for a while,” said OPRF coach Kelly Collins. “You’ve got to give credit to Willowbrook; they played an outstanding match. They had relentless defense, fought through everything, and really wanted to win.”

“I don’t think anyone was expecting this to end,” said OPRF senior outside hitter Grace Nelson, who had 15 kills, 15 digs, and an ace. “Willowbrook outplayed us, and it was just sad to end that way.”

OPRF (31-7) started the opening set strong, taking the first five points of the match. However, Willowbrook (39-1) rallied to take the lead, and things seesawed back and forth. The Huskies, thanks to clutch kills from Nelson and Ella Hullinger, were able to steady themselves and prevailed.

Things looked good in the second set, too, as OPRF jumped out to an 8-1 lead. But after a side out gave Willowbrook possession, the Warriors’ Hannah Kenny, a junior committed to Louisville, sparked a 10-0 run as her serving changed the momentum of the match.

“They had aggressive serving,” Nelson said. “That pressure was just too much.”

“They took us out of our system, and we couldn’t get anything going,” Collins said. “Callie Kenny [Hannah’s older sister, a Marquette commit] was unstoppable; we knew the ball was going to her the majority of the time, but we just couldn’t get a block up.”

After Willowbrook took the second set, the final set briefly was tight. But leading 7-5, the Warriors applied the proverbial hammer with a 12-2 run that sealed the Huskies’ fate.

“Unfortunately, as much as we prepared and knew what they were going to do, we just struggled to execute,” Collins said. “Then that third set, we came out flat and didn’t show much fight; they pretty much rolled us.” 

Collins thanked Nelson, Hullinger, and the other seniors — Keira Kleidon and Kinsey Smith (25 assists, 4 digs, ace) — for their contributions to the program and the excitement they provided, not just to the school, but the community.

“They’ve had so much success and been outstanding,” Collins said. “They’ve displayed a great amount of work ethic and it’s been fun to see them grow and develop not just into strong volleyball players, but outstanding young women.”

Nelson, who will attend the University of Kansas next fall, said she enjoyed playing with what she called “a special group” and felt the sectional loss shouldn’t detract from what they accomplished.

“Ella, Keira, Kinsey, and myself are really close, and it was nice to end things with them,” Nelson said. 

She is also optimistic about next season, which brings back five players, including juniors Phoebe Shorney, Gabby Towns and Tewa Woodson. (6 kills, 4 blocks, 5 digs) and sophomore Samantha Shelton (9 kills).

“They’ve really grown as volleyball players and I can’t wait to see what they do the next couple of years,” she said.

Collins also likes the Huskies’ potential for 2024, saying that there’s “unfinished business.”

“Our coaches are not looking at next year as a rebuild by any means,” she said. “We have a strong foundation, and we’re really excited about our underclassmen coming up. We’re already chomping at the bit to get out there next season.”

Correction 11-10: This article was updated to reflect that Tewa Woodson is a junior. We regret the error.

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