LISLE – On a St. Charles East light on returning experience, McKenna Slavik is the linchpin at the net.
How valuable is she? Just ask her coach.
"I would say she's probably the best setter in the state...[and] could go up in the country as one of the best setters – truly, she's court-smart, everything smart; she's got it happening," Saints coach Jennie Kull said after East's 25-18, 25-10 loss at Benet on Wednesday.
Slavik set her heart on Clemson University as a sophomore, and has risen to become an elite setter with each passing year. Last season, Slavik fnished second on the team with 202 digs and had 560 assists.
"They got a diamond, man," Kull continued. "She's the real deal."
She couldn't slow down Benet Wednesday, though.
Benet primarily maintained control through both sets. East went on small runs at times, but Benet – returning some experience from injury – kept the Saints a step behind. Benet led 13-12 in the first set, when three consecutive kills allowed the Redwings to pull away.
Benet easily handed St. Charles East in the second set, jumping out to a 9-3 lead behind the powerful swats of senior outside hitter Valentina Tabares and never looked back.
Caitlin Wepfer and Tabares each had eight kills apiece for Benet. Kyla Kenney had five kills and an ace, while Caroline Gard had three aces.
Saints middle hitter Kirsten Rogers had four kills, and Amarion Isbell had three.
Benet lost last week to St. Charles North. Since then, the Redwings have seen an improved body language, look on the floor and subsequent play on the court since the beginning of the season.
"That needs to continue to get better," Benet coach Brad Baker said. "It wasn't at the beginning [of the season]. It wasn't great; it wasn't bad, but it wasn't where it needed to be. We're getting there."
Baker says his team doesn't have anybody that played middle blocker in club volleyball, so instead, he's trying to utilize his "pin players" in the best way.
"Our setters are really good," Baker said. "They're super athletic. They're big, they can block so we're trying to use them as blockers too in the front row and attackers. It's a 6-2 [rotation], but it's not a 6-2 in the traditional sense."
Slavik is coming off an extremely productive summer, winning an AAU national championship with her Sports Performance 18 Elite team in Florida.
She's played on top teams before, but never made it to the fourth day of the tournament.
It was an eye-opening experience.
"Before, I never made it that far and never really thought about winning," Slavik said. "Being on the 18 Elite team at the end, it really just changed my mentality. Winning is extremely important; it's everything."
Now, she has to turn her attention to the present and leading a Saints team still working its way through some lineup shifts and injuries. Freshman Taylor Swanson saw action on the court Wednesday amid some injuries for East (7-2).
"Hopefully, this is the low," Kull said of the recent stretch. "We've been progressively not making it happen, so hopefully we can have a swing up from here and make it go."
"It's really early for us," Slavik said. "We're still getting to know where everyone is doing their best, [and] getting the job done. We have really good attitudes on our team, so I feel like that is going to help us a lot versus other teams that maybe they have the talent, but just not the right attitudes. I feel like we can get pretty far."