Anyone who has ever dealt with back pain can appreciate the comeback Burlington Central volleyball player Megan Heinz is making this season.
According to Rockets coach Marv Leavitt, Heinz, a defensive specialist, made the varsity team last season as a junior but was unable to compete due to spondylolisthesis, a painful condition in which a vertebra slips out of place and presses on the bone beneath. Years of diving and jumping for volleyballs throughout grade school, club and high school had taken a toll. The only remedy in her case was surgery, which included the insertion of rods and pins.
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Undeterred, Heinz supported the team from the bench, rehabbed for 10 months, tried out again this summer and made the roster. She does not play full time because the Central lineup includes some talented defensive players likely to play college volleyball someday, but the 5-foot-4 senior has found her niche as Burlington Central's designated server.
"She was in a body cast for six months or so," Leavitt said. "To not only recover from that but to resume playing competitive volleyball where she's constantly diving and putting her back in all kinds of positions is just amazing.
"She doesn't get as many rotations as everyone else, but she's just a great teammate. What she has overcome is pretty inspiring to everybody. She's a very special, very determined kid."
Leavitt said Heinz typifies this year's Rockets: not very tall but scrappy and determined. The Rockets are 13-6 overall, 5-1 in the Big Northern East heading into the Hampshire Tournament on Saturday.
Tourney time: Jacobs (14-5) will be aiming for a tournament title Saturday when the Golden Eagles compete in the Hampshire Tournament against a field that includes Richmond-Burton, Burlington Central and the host Whip-Purs, among others.
The Eagles lost in the title match last season to Marian Central, which is not competing at Hampshire this weekend.
"I'd like to see us make it to the championship round and do really well this weekend," Jacobs coach Lisa Dwyer said. "Richmond-Burton is a decent team and Burlington Central has been competitive. It'll be a good test."
Opponents should prepare to face an aggressive serve. In one recent match against Vernon Hills, Jacobs senior Alyssa Ehrhardt served 15 of the team's 16 aces.
In another match against Lake Park, the Golden Eagles struck for 19 aces, led that time by sophomore libero Kassie Kasper, freshman middle blocker Bridget Wallenberger and junior setter Mackenzie Traub.
"Against Alyssa that day they just couldn't pass the ball," Dwyer said. "There were six people trying to serve receive. We miss our share of serves, too, but that's the aggressiveness we want to serve with."
Jacobs has been succeeding with youth in the lineup alongside veterans like hitters Ehrhardt and Maris Smith. Besides Wallenberger (6-0), senior setter Taylor Lauder and Traub have been spreading the ball of late to sophomore Jenna Bilgrien (6-foot-1) and freshman Katie Mahoney (6-0). The height the youthful Eagles bring is helping offset the loss of transfer Brighton Troha (6-2) and injured junior Callie Anderson (5-10).
"It's weird," Dwyer said of the program's sudden influx of height after going years with very little. "It's allowing us to spread the ball around and utilize some different people. It's good to see some others gaining confidence because people know we usually go to Alyssa and Maris. It will only make us a better team."
She had it right: St. Edward coach Jaime Dovichi knows her rule book.
In a match last week against Larkin in the always noisy gym at St. Edward, the Green Wave trailed 20-17 in the second game when Dovichi did not hear the warning from the referee to return to the floor from a timeout. Thus, her team was late getting back.
Larkin, already in position, was given the go-ahead whistle to serve by the up referee and promptly delivered an uncontested ace, to Dovich's dismay.
The ninth-year St. Edward coach with two state trophies to her credit argued her team should have been issued a delay of game warning or automatically charged with its second timeout. The official disagreed at the time.
Rattled, the St. Edward players dropped the next 2 points before regaining some footing, but they never fully regrouped against a Larkin team now 14-10 through Tuesday's win at Batavia.
"I give Larkin credit because they're a good team and they played well, but it's so unfair to see a match end like that," Dovichi said. "They should never have been whistled to serve. It definitely took the wind out of our sails. I'm not saying I would protest the match or anything like that, but it came at a very crucial time and was just unfortunate."
Dovichi contacted the IHSA about the discrepancy and filed a formal written complaint over the call. However, the referee who made the decision later contacted her via email to concede a mistake had been made.
The Green Wave went on to play perhaps its best volleyball of the season Wednesday night, when they lost 25-16, 28-26 to St. Francis (21-3), the No. 2 team in this week's Daily Herald Top 20.
"We're playing pretty well," said Dovichi, whose team is 8-12. "Our time will come pretty soon, I think."
Cary-ing onward: Despite a 25-19, 26-24 home defeat against FVC Valley Division leader Prairie Ridge Tuesday, Cary-Grove coach Patty Langanis remains enthused by her team's development.
Led by senior setter Jess Bartczyszyn, who is committed to Louisiana-Lafayette, and burgeoning senior outside hitter Alex Larsen, the Trojans have improved to 10-8 overall, 3-3 in the division.
"We're making huge strides every week," said Langanis, who coached Cary-Grove to the 2009 Class 4A title and consecutive runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011. "In some aspects it looks like we're struggling because I don't remember the last time one of our teams was 10-8 at this point in the season, but I feel really good about our progress at the end of every practice. We've been making big improvements."
Langanis credited Bartczyszn and senior outside hitter Alex Larsen for their steady play.
"Jess is just an incredibly fantastic setter who continues the tradition of excellent setters at Cary-Grove," Langanis said. "She just takes so many bad passes and turns them into great sets.
"And Alex is the player making the biggest strides. She's a lefty we moved from right side to the outside. Before this year she had never played in the backcourt, had never serve received, never played the outside. We're asking a lot of this kid. It's impressive where she is now compared to where she was this summer. She really has the ability to take over matches. She's tough and she's getting better every week."