The understudy’s seamless transition to master boded well this season for the Geneva girls volleyball program.
As a junior last year, Kelly Dalheim admired the back-row wizardry of former Vikings libero Ashleigh Shain, who set the Vikings’ single-season digs record.
One year later and in her first season as the Vikings’ starting libero, Dalheim broke Shain’s short-lived season record of 475 digs by posting 573 to guide the defensive-minded Vikings to conference and regional championships. Dalheim, a low-profile, defensive specialist a year ago, is the Kane County Chronicle’s Girls Volleyball Player of the Year.
Shain, who recently helped the East Tennessee State women’s volleyball team to its first NCAA tournament berth in program history, is proud of her successor, saying “If someone was going to beat me out, I’m glad it’s Kelly Dalheim.”
The two most prolific defensive players in program history fed off each’s other performances last year, leaving an imprint on Dalheim’s game as a senior.
“She was a huge help,” Dalheim said of Shain. “I really looked up to her last year. She was a really great leader, and I kind of just knew this year coming in, I kind of had to do the same thing.”
Included in Dalheim’s breakthrough season was a 41-dig performance in the Vikings’ tight, three-game loss to Glenbard West in the 4A Larkin Sectional Championship match. That, too, set a program benchmark for most digs in a match, capping Dalheim’s dynamite season in fitting fashion.
“I knew she was going to be one of the top defenders in the area,” said Geneva coach KC Johnsen, who also has mentored Dalheim in the Kane County Jrs club program. “I didn’t know she was going to be that much better than anyone we had ever had before. She really did an outstanding job.”
The Vikings, absent imposing size or major star power, weren’t a popular preseason choice to win the Upstate Eight Conference River title, but the Vikings managed to do so, winning all five conference matches. The biggest of those came against defending champion St. Charles East, a rival the Vikings defeated again in the sectional semifinals.
The common refrain from opposing coaches: Geneva is tough defensively, and makes few mistakes. That started with Dalheim, who remains uncommitted but hopes her banner season stirs college recruiting interest as the club season approaches.
“Defense is always important but to not have any huge, tall power hitters, we really had to rely on our defense and hitting the ball smart as opposed to power,” Dalheim said.
Dalheim was a gymnast as a child, a background that she credits with helping her become so agile and rangy. Johnsen refers to the 5-foot-5 Dalheim as “terribly, explosively athletic,” but that was only a slice of what she brought to the Vikings’ back row.
“The other thing is she just had such good ball control,” Johnsen said. “If she can touch it, she can usually turn it into a dig that we can set. She can throw one hand out there and turn it into a pretty good pass if she has to.”
Making Dalheim’s monster statistical season all the more impressive, she missed a pair of matches because of conflicts with the Vikings’ marching band, for which she played the piccolo.
Dalheim acknowledged missing those matches was difficult, but said she was confident her back-row teammates, including promising sophomore Kelsey Wicinski, could pick up the slack.
Call it an early start on passing the torch, a dynamic of which Dalheim knows plenty about.