Evanston’s boys volleyball program took another big step forward in 2023 under the guidance of head coach Stanley Antoine.

Now the Wildkits have to work on finishing what they’ve started.

Unable to maintain a consistent performance after dominating Loyola Academy in the first set Thursday night, the Kits bowed out of the Illinois High School Association state tournament series as their neighborhood rivals bounced back for a 19-25, 25-23, 25-12 victory in the Evanston Regional championship match held at Beardsley Gymnasium.

The ETHS varsity boys volleyball team huddles up at the May 25 match against Loyola Academy. Credit: Murat Philippe

Loyola, the No. 3 sectional seed, eliminated Evanston Township High School for the second straight year in postseason play and will advance to the sectional tournament set for Saturday at Glenbrook North. Evanston finished with a 21-18 won-loss record and fell short of earning its first regional title since 2016.

The matchup of the two rivals Thursday was a classic example of how important it is to be able to play with an early lead in a one-and-done postseason format. Evanston took charge early in the first set, building an 8-3 edge that allowed them to just trade points with the visitors after that, while Loyola broke out to leads of 9-4 and 9-5 to prosper in a tournament scenario where it’s often difficult to string together a scoring run.

The last thing Antoine wanted was for his team to have to play from behind.

“We started strong tonight, but what we need to work on [next year] is starting strong and finishing stronger,” said the ETHS coach. “Loyola’s offense is tough to deal with and you’d pretty much have to play error-free volleyball if you get behind.

“Blink twice and the score of 12-10 turns into 20-10. Loyola started to get into a service rhythm at the end [despite missing a total of 10 serves on the night] and we lost our consistency on the passing end. That’s a terrible recipe. Passing is an area we’ve really been concentrating on in the program. We are improving, and that helps us stay in matches. Once we get that consistency, I think we’ll be fine.”

But the Kits couldn’t generate much of an offense in that decisive third set. Erratic passing helped Loyola pull away for the victory after a roll shot by Evanston junior Dillon Malow-Williams pulled the hosts to within 13-9. The Ramblers then outscored the losers 12-3 down the stretch.

Seniors on the 2023 ETHS boys varsity volleyball team are celebrated May 17 at Beardsley Gym. Credit: eths.volleyball Instagram

Six-foot-nine Aidan Klein, one of just four seniors on the ETHS roster this spring, led the way on offense with eight kills. The Loyola University-bound hitter also contributed one ace serve and a couple of blocks for points.

Next best for Evanston were Malow-Williams and Tyler Tang with six kills apiece, and Henry Vanden Heuvel with five.

The host team seemed poised to end that long drought regarding regional titles after an impressive all-around effort in the first set. Tyler Stern’s tip of a Loyola over-pass boosted the early lead to 8-3, and back-to-back ace serves from Jonah Fogel off the bench helped seal the win later.

The Ramblers relied on their experience and early leads after that. A five-point cushion from the start helped Loyola hang on in the second set, as the Wildkits closed within a single point at 18-17; 21-20; 23-22; and 24-23 but couldn’t get over the hump.

“We’re getting there,” said Antoine. “You never want the season to end like this. Our goal will always be winning the state championship – but first we’ve got to win a regional. I think we’re going in the right direction. We have 10 juniors coming back and a lot of strong sophomores from the JV team. We have good numbers, and there are a lot of kids in Evanston who want to play volleyball now.”

Maybe they can supply that finishing touch.

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