Kaneland coach Todd Weimer thought the talent he lost to graduation last year might slow his team's start this season, or may even lead to the Knights carrying the rebuilding tag. At the season's midpoint, Weimer has been pleased to see his team is exceeding expectations.
The Knights are 13-7 overall and, after having a week off, will begin the second round of Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference play today against Morris – and they're not out of the conference title race.
"I think we've been working together as a team a lot lately," Weimer said. "It was more like we picked up where we had left off last year instead of rebuilding, and they're working together as a team. I appreciate that."
Weimer said his players are like "turtles" in that they play with a "hard shell" and let the challenges they face along the way roll off their backs. That attitude has helped the Knights compete against competition from much larger programs such as Geneva and DeKalb.
Sophomore Ellie Dunn has helped spark the offense and shown her versatility, moving to the right side this year despite the ability to play on the outside and in the middle. She's transitioned easily and now leads the team in kills. Weimer also has been impressed with his seniors, who he said give him everything they have every day.
"This is just another great season for Kaneland volleyball," Weimer said.
Back in the fold Batavia coach Lori Trippi-Payne will welcome back to her roster standout middle hitter Kristen Koncelik and right side hitter Anysa Ocon, who both have been injured and out of the Bulldogs' lineup. The two are set to join the Bulldogs tonight against Glenbard South on Batavia's Volley for the Cure night, which raises funds for breast cancer awareness.
In Koncelik's and Ocon's absence, Trippi-Payne has seen several other players step up, especially during a key match against reigning Class 4A state champion Benet this past Friday.
Trippi-Payne noted senior right side hitter Lizzy Thrun, sophomore middle hitter Jancy Lundberg, and junior middle hitter Shea Thayer among the players with significant contributions in the Bulldogs' nonconference loss to Benet – a match they kept fairly close before losing, 25-16, 25-20.
A versatile lineup Geneva still must face St. Charles East and Larkin in Upstate Eight Conference River Division play, and both teams are playing very good volleyball. Still, Vikings coach KC Johnsen would love to see his team win its first UEC River title and thinks this deep team built more around defense could rise to that challenge.
"This team is a lot different than teams I've had in the past," Johnsen said. "I have a lot more balance. We play almost 11 players every night. Most years I'd play seven or eight players at the most."
IN THE GROOVE
Allie O'Reilly, Burlington Central, jr., L
What she did: O'Reilly had 73 digs last weekend to help the Rockets finish second in the Hampshire Tournament. She added 28 digs on Tuesday in a win against Rockford Christian, bringing her season total to 381. O'Reilly is on pace to break the school record of 449, set in 2011 by Sam Bohne, who now plays at NCAA Division I Jacksonville State.
What the Spartans did: The Spartans went 3-2 in the prestigious Asics Challenge last weekend and jostled lineups when standout Maddie Haggerty, suffering from a blister on her foot, sat out of the Spartans' match against Huntley. Other players were battling injuries as well, yet the Spartans still finished seventh in a field that boasted some of the best teams in the country.
What we learned last week
It was a quiet week for local volleyball teams with many taking the weekend off. However, Rosary came out and made a big statement against perennial Suburban Christian Conference power Chicago Christian in the Royals' win Monday. Turns out scouting reports that leave no detail unaccounted for really are effective. Diligent coach Rachel Hartmann has put Rosary in good position to make a run at the SCC Blue title.
What we'll learn in the week ahead
Can Kaneland stay in the NI Big 12 conference race? The Knights are 2-3 in the league overall, but lost matches to conference leaders DeKalb and Yorkville in three games. They begin the second half of their quest today against Morris. We'll also see St. Charles East welcome some of the state's best teams to its annual Mizuno Cup tournament, including Rosary and Geneva. The tournament should give us a glimpse of where each team is at this point in the season.
Coach Sly sez
Make plans Saturday to go to the Great Lakes Center in Aurora and take in the Mizuno Cup. Rosary is in a pool with Benet, Geneva will have to face Hinsdale South and Leon (Fla.) and the host Saints will take on Naperville North and Rockford Guilford.
Bracket play begins Saturday, so upsets in pool play Friday could create some fantastic matches. If you have time to attend just one more tournament this year, the Mizuno Cup would be well worth it.