As the volleyball playoffs are served up this week, Benet finds itself in a familiar spot.
The team to beat.
Funny how things have changed in two months' time.
In August few outside the gymnasium in Lisle expected the Redwings to be a contender to repeat as Class 4A state champs. Too much firepower lost. Too many unknowns.
Two months later, Benet is 33-2, perfect in the four tournaments it played in, with quality wins over Mother McAuley, Marist, Joliet Catholic, Naperville Central and West Aurora. Not bad for a team with a bunch of kids who don't even start for their programs' top club teams.
"It's like the little train that couldn't. Everybody has told us no," Benet coach Brad Baker said. "We were the only ones who thought we could be where we are. When it comes down to it, those were the only people that needed to believe. It's been a fun ride."
It could be a bumpy road back to Redbird Arena, though.
A reformatting of the 4A Neuqua Valley sectional put Benet in a regional at Naperville Central with the host Redhawks and Naperville North. Benet could conceivably have to beat the North/Central winner, then West Aurora and star Lauren Carlini just to get to a sectional final. Looming in a supersectional is nationally ranked Quincy (34-1).
"We've been there before, and it's not like we haven't been in this sectional before. We know it's tough," Baker said. "This is why we play the schedule we do, so when we do have these big matches we are ready."
Regional host Naperville Central (27-8), with a senior-laden team its best since 2008, seeks its first regional title since that 2008 team lost to Benet in a sectional final. First up for the Redhawks is rival Naperville North (27-9). The two teams will be playing their fourth match this season; Naperville Central won the first two, but the Huskies won last week in three sets at Naperville North.
"When we first saw them at the Wheaton Classic I knew this was going to be a long season," Naperville Central coach Brie Isaacson said, "but this is what you play your season for. When the postseason comes around the good teams step up. Our focus is one match at a time, but we have positioned ourselves to be ready."
If Benet's quest for a repeat is the area's biggest playoff storyline, Glenbard West is a close No. 2.
The Hilltoppers (33-2), the top seed in the Class 4A Larkin sectional, won their first 31 matches this season and captured their first West Suburban Silver crown since 1984.
Now Caleigh Ryan-led Glenbard West seeks its first regional title since 1985. The Hilltoppers lost a regional final heartbreaker to St. Charles North last year but this week will be hosting their own regional. Glenbard West would play Addison Trail or West Chicago in a regional final and with a win could get a rematch with St. Charles North in a sectional semifinal.
Hilltoppers coach Pete Mastandrea, who has the 1985 plaque in the trunk of his car, doesn't want this year's title to leave Glen Ellyn.
"Everything has gone according to schedule this season, if not better," Mastandrea said. "I would love to see us play our best volleyball coming up, and I think we can. They know what they want to do. It's their time."
In Class 3A St. Francis (30-5) is after its ninth state title, and second straight trip to Redbird Arena after taking third last year.
The Spartans got a boost last week, with star outside Maddie Haggerty returning from a concussion. St. Francis likely will get the winner of Glenbard South (26-10) and Wheaton Academy (28-7) in a regional final at IMSA.
As usual, a date with Joliet Catholic looms. The two teams have met in the playoffs each of the last six years and would play in a sectional final at Glenbard South. JCA beat St. Francis in three sets at the ASICS Challenge in September, the Spartans' last loss.
"This is the time of year to be putting it all together. I'm hoping that that is happening," St. Francis coach Peg Kopec said. "You cannot take anybody lightly this year. The adage, it's boring, but you really do have to take one match at a time."
In other regionals involving area teams, at Waubonsie the host Warriors will take on Rosary tonight in one regional semifinal with West Aurora and Metea Valley the other matchup. Glenbard North, seeded No. 6 in the Larkin sectional, will face Wheaton Warrenville South for the fourth time this season in tonight's regional semifinal at St. Charles North; Glenbard North won the first three times. The winner will likely get the host and No. 4 seed North Stars next.
Hinsdale South is the top seed in the Riverside-Brookfield sectional. The Hornets, who won a sectional two years ago, seek redemption after an upset loss in regionals last year. Should the Hornets win their sectional they would likely face a daunting task to state in the form of the Lincoln-Way Central sectional winner, probably McAuley or Marist.
Immaculate Conception, bumped up to Class 3A, is the top seed at the regional at IC. The Knights could get in a regional final No. 3 Timothy Christian (26-9), which IC beat twice early in the season.