Some teams refuse to set high goals for fear of falling short. That's not how the Cary-Grove girls volleyball program operates.
A year after setting the highest goal a high school team can set for itself -- a national championship -- only to fall 2 points shy in the final match of the season, coach Patty Langanis and her players still believe aiming high is the only direction to aim.
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"Make goals that everyone else thinks are unattainable, then work your butt off as hard as you can and have a plan as to how to get there," Langanis said of her philosophy. "Don't be afraid if it doesn't happen. Fear can't hold you back."
Fear has not held back the 2011 Trojans, which partly explains how they became the third straight Cary-Grove squad to qualify for the Class 4A Final Four. Cary-Grove (36-4) will face Marist (34-6) in a semifinal Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal at approximately 9 p.m. The winner will play the winner of Friday's first semifinal between Benet (37-3) and St. Charles East (34-6) for the state title Saturday night. In fact, fear no longer registers with this team in the wake of last year's traumatic season-ending loss.
After winning it all in 2009, the Trojans bulldozed their way back into the Final Four last November. They were the clear favorite, ranked No. 1 in the country by prepvolleyball.com after winning the prestigious Asics Tournament at Mother McAuley. Loaded with five future Division-I players, they swept Edwardsville in a semifinal and were 41-0 entering the title match.
All that stood between the Trojans and their goal was Lyons Township, the team Cary-Grove had beaten for the championship in 2009. However, there would be no fairy tale ending. Lyons, ranked No. 10 in the country at the time, upset the Trojans 25-23, 18-25, 25-23.
The Cary-Grove team captains accepted their second-place trophy the way Superman accepts kryptonite. The Trojans found the trophy as distasteful as toddlers find broccoli.
Some might say they should have been more appreciative of a great season overall. After all, any Cary-Grove team of a decade ago would have viewed a second-place finish as a remarkable success story. The Trojans had set the bar much higher in 2010, unapologetically.
"It affected us deeply and it's still with us to this day," Langanis said of the loss, "but if we had never set a goal of being No. 1 in the nation, I don't believe we would have ever been 41-0 and going into the state title match with the national title in our grasp. That's what we learned: make goals high.
"So many teams are afraid to fail or take a risk in a pressure situation because their idea of failure is not accomplishing your goal. Many programs won't make goals. They won't say 'this is what we're going to do' because they don't know what to do if it doesn't happen. You can't be afraid.
"In our culture today nobody wants to feel pain. Everyone wants to fix it. Everything is OK. Even after our loss people would say 'We're so proud of you. Be proud. You should be happy. Second place is fabulous.' We were like 'No, it's not fabulous. It's not OK. We hurt and we're gonna hurt because of how much work we put into this.'"
The weeks following the loss to Lyons were a blur to the players. The empty feeling ached anew anytime they passed each other in the school hallways.
"It still hurts now to even think that we lost it," said Ashley Rosch, a senior outside hitter committed to Illinois State. "It was extremely heartbreaking. We just felt like we didn't achieve what we worked so hard for."
That loss has had a lasting effect of another kind. It thickened the skin of the returning players, including Rosch and Melanie Jereb, a 6-foot hitter committed to Creighton. They say they now play with a more carefree attitude as a result.
"I feel like I can play with less fear now," Jereb said. "We've already lived through the worst thing that can happen when you go downstate, which is to be expected to win and not win it. It makes the game much more fun now."
Fun is a word Jereb and Rosch each used multiple times to describe this year's playoff run, perhaps because it has been the least expected of the three and therefore the most gratifying. The Trojans graduated the most dominant hitter in the state over a two-year period in Kelly Lamberti (Ohio), talented setter Colleen Smith (Indiana), outside hitter Allison Whimpey (Tennessee-Martin) and libero Sam Mainzer (Illinois-Springfield). Yet, they are guaranteed to return from Redbird Arena this weekend with their third state trophy in as many years.
This group many not have the raw talent of last year's squad, but it enjoys excellent chemistry. Jereb and Rosch have each developed into dominant hitters and are supported by junior Alex Lerner. Junior Jess Bartczyszyn has trained hard to achieve elite status among area setters. Middles Sheila Wilhelmi and Mallory Wilczynski form a staunch block, and defenders Korey Kronforst and Nicole Schuh excel in the back row.
Rosch and Jereb were starters, but all the girls except Lerner were members of the 16-player team that finished one step shy of the mountaintop last season. They share a memory they'd rather not, but it has nonetheless helped shape them into the team they've become.
"They all learned invaluable lessons from that experience," Langanis said of the loss to Lyons. "What we learned from it is that we're not afraid anymore. Previous Cary-Grove teams that had lost in sectionals or supersectionals when we should have won lost because of that fear of not knowing what to do if they didn't win or if they missed a serve or if such and such happens.
"This team doesn't have that fear anymore. We've been through the worst and we've survived. That's what we carry with us."