It's only mid-September, but the girls from Crystal Lake South are headed into the volleyball equivalent of midterm exams.
The Gators have won 8 of their first 10 matches and stand 3-0 in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference following wins against Cary-Grove, Huntley and McHenry. Now a roughly two-week gantlet begins.
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CL South opens the challenging stretch tonight with an important division match at Prairie Ridge. Then comes the Asics Preview this weekend at Mother McAuley. The Gators will face Hononegah and top seed Lincoln-Way East in pool play Friday.
Next week's schedule includes matches against division rivals Dundee-Crown and Jacobs (12-3, 3-0), followed by a weekend tournament at Elk Grove, where the Gators will likely square off against traditional suburban powers Stevenson and Barrington.
"We've been telling the girls we have a two-week run of really testing ourselves and finding out what we're made of," said CL South coach Jorie Fontana. "We're definitely not taking it easy on ourselves as far as the schedule in concerned. The Asics Preview is a very good tournament. That's why we schedule it. We want to see where we fit in our area, but we also want to see where we sit on a statewide basis."
The Gators are succeeding thus far due to steady play of multiple contributors.
"The beauty of what we have going on is that our stat line is different in every match with someone new being highlighted," Fontana said. "Carly Nolan might have a great night, then the night it might be Nicole Jurkash or we might be featuring the middle with (Nicole) Slimko and Kylie (Portera). It's a good problem to have."
Royal defense stiffening: Larkin won its last 2 matches to improve to 8-7. Better defense is playing a big role in the team's improvement, according to head coach Henry Graack.
The Royals are led offensively by juniors Olivia Kofie and Brianna Stewart, who are getting more opportunities thanks to the defense of seniors Anna Gaston and Natalie Gill.
"Anna has really adapted to our defense really well, and she's getting a bunch of digs in spots the kids are not used to being in because (assistant coach) Nick (Corn) and I are positioning them differently," Graack said. "Anna has definitely stood out. And Natalie took over at libero and has just run with it. She's our new serving libero."
Gill had 13 digs and Gaston made 12 digs in a 25-21, 26-24 victory over Streamwood on Tuesday. The Royals hope their improved back-line play will help them make a solid showing this weekend at the St. Viator tournament.
"We're getting better, but we still have tons of room for improvement," Graack said. "We're still a work in progress."
Larkin's first-year girls volleyball coach also commended the recent play of senior setter Diana Castillo, who has started the last 2 matches. Castillo finished with 22 assists in the 3-game win against Bartlett Saturday, and she notched 17 assists and 2 aces in the victory over Streamwood.
Yoder out: Burlington Central coach Marv Leavitt said Wednesday he does not expect senior outside hitter Hannah Yoder to return to action this season.
Yoder, a fourth-year varsity performer and team captain, injured an ankle during warm-ups prior to the season opener against Hampshire.
"It looks like Hannah will be out for the whole season," said Leavitt, who last week registered his 600th career victory. "They did an MRI and found more ligament damage so it seems more serious than they first thought."
The Rockets have played well despite the loss of their leading hitter. They entered Wednesday's match at Harvard with a 10-5 overall record, 2-0 in the Big Northern East.
Junior libero Allie O'Reilly leads the defense with 220 digs and was named to the all-tournament team at DeKalb. The offensive attack has been led by sophomore Lauren Wiltsie (98 kills) and senior Lexie Bouza, who has 85 kills despite missing 3 matches.
"I'm real proud of our team," Leavitt said. "We're a really competitive team and a strong defensive team that serves aggressively. We're short, but we're playing real well.
The Rockets have the weekend off in advance of key BNE matches at Richmond-Burton next Tuesday and home against Marengo next Thursday.
Harvest back to full strength: Harvest Christian Academy, which made a Class 1A supersectional appearance in 2011, is off to a 9-3 start and poised to get stronger.
Junior Sydney Doby, the team's top all-around player, returned to action during the Timothy Christian Tournament last week after resting a deep knee bruise. Doby only played in the front row before rotating out the last several matches, but she'll again play all the way through the rotation beginning with today's contest against Christian Liberty Academy. The Lions seek to run their Northeast Athletic Conference record to 4-0.
Harvest Christian was also without sophomore libero Jade Martinez for multiple matches due to whiplash she sustained in a car accident.
"I've been doing a lot of switching of lineups because we went through some injuries," Lions coach Kim Floyd said. "I haven't found a lineup that's going to be the lineup yet. We've definitely had moments of brilliance, but at other times we're still jelling."
Harvest Christian Academy will compete this weekend in the ninth annual Westminster Christian Warrior Tournament at the Top Flight Volleyball Club.
Liss-tening up: Huntley is off to a 4-6 start, 1-2 in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference under first-year coach Karen Liss, who inherited a rebuilding project following heavy graduation losses.
The Red Raiders have been led in the early going by senior middle blocker Hailey Vitacco and junior outside hitter Emily Westermeyer.
"Emily on the outside is one of our go-to hitters and Hailey is doing a real good job leading the girls," said Liss, who previously coached Hampshire for six seasons. "We've just got to get her the ball more.
"We're not off to the start we were hoping for, but these girls play hard. I hope we can continue to improve and surprise some people the second time around in our conference."
The Red Raiders play at Jacobs today before traveling next Tuesday to Cary-Grove, Liss' alma mater.
College awards for former Trojans: Some talented players who fueled Cary-Grove's run to state the past three seasons are making huge impacts at the collegiate level.
Kelly Lamberti, the Illinois 2010-11 Gatorade Player of the Year, was named the Mid-American Conference East Division offensive player of the week Tuesday. It is the third time this season and second straight week Lamberti has garnered the award. The Ohio University sophomore recently eclipsed 500 career kills.
Ashley Rosch, a 2012 Cary-Grove graduated who teamed with Lamberti to win the 2009 Class 4A title, is enjoying a successful freshman season at Illinois State.
Rosch was named the Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the week Monday following her all-tournament performance at the Rocket Classic Tournament at Toledo. She has started 9 of 10 matches, leads the Redbirds in kills (93) and is second on the team in digs (105) and points (109).