Watching Lauren Carlini play at West Aurora the past four years has been a true treat to area volleyball fans, an up-close look at the type of talent you'll see the next four years on the Big Ten Network and perhaps after that at the Olympics.
And as many "oohs" and "aahs" as Carlini's play elicits from the crowd after a jump serve ace, vicious spike or pinpoint cross-court set, it's often after the match when it becomes apparent how unique of an era Carlini's has been.
Her postgame routine includes grade school girls asking for autographs. It's moms requesting a picture with their daughter and Carlini. It's total strangers coming up with pen or paper in hand, or snapping a photo on their phone, or just a smile and an encouraging word.
It's an amazing amount of attention, something that has caught Carlini off guard and only intensified this fall when prepvolleyball.com ranked her as the best high school player in the country.
"I'm starting to get used to it a little bit, I understand where it's coming from," Carlini said. "At first I was like, 'Are you sure you want my picture?'"
Carlini is always polite, never turning anyone away. And her coaches say the success and publicity, which began when she committed to Wisconsin as a freshman and continued being selected to the U.S. Junior National Team after her sophomore year, hasn't changed her.
"At first I was a little overwhelmed, I still am a little overwhelmed," Carlini said. "It's kind of crazy when people come up to you after games and want my autograph or my pictures. It's such an honor to be recognized like this. One of my main things is to stay humble through it all because being all on yourself is probably going to ruin you in the end so that's one of my main things is to stay humble."
Carlini is this year's Captain of the Daily Herald's Tri-Cities All-Area Volleyball Team. She also earned Captain honors as a sophomore and junior.
Carlini becomes the first player to ever win the award three times -- not just in volleyball but football, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball or softball.
Just look at the athlete her club coach Rick Butler uses as a comparison.
"What very few people realize is how good of a volleyball player Lauren is. She's one of the best setters at her age group in the world," said Butler, who runs the Sports Performance club Carlini started at when she was 6. "It would be like a basketball point guard who also is one of the best rebounders. Magic Johnson was a little like that."
Carlini's mother Gale played volleyball at Wheaton North High School, College of DuPage and Appalachian State. Lauren quickly took to the sport but Butler said after a growth spurt in seventh and eighth grade he knew he had something special, and by the time Carlini was a freshman he had pulled her up to play with his 16 elite team.
"She was already so polished as a player with her skill-set once she grew and developed it was really evident she was going to be a nice player," Butler said.
About that same time Sue Ludwigs was coaching Carlini at Jewel Middle School.
"Lauren was a standout athlete and person from the very beginning," Ludwigs said. "Not only did she excel on the court but also in the classroom. We have had many good athletes come through Jewel but none with the ability to excel at every position. She set high goals for herself from the very beginning on the court and in the classroom."
Jewel only lost one game with Carlini and won the city championship each year. Ludwigs also appreciated Carlini's attitude with her teammates.
"The first day of sixth grade practice we knew that she was something special," Ludwigs said. "Not many sixth-graders come in with a jump serve! She could easily have served entire games.
"Even with her advanced skill she was a team player, always positive on the court when other players were just learning the basics. Players on and off the court looked up to her because of her positive attitude toward others. She was a coach's dream. We would walk into other schools and players and coaches had already heard that Jewel had a phenomenal player."
Carlini's high school coach Kari Nicholson has seen those same leadership qualities.
"I believe that her skills and her skill level is only one thing that sets Lauren apart; she is a true leader," Nicholson said. "She sets the example by her own hard work as well as her ability to motivate her team. Lauren is a great young lady. She is highly motivated toward her goals, and she is quite funny. Being her coach has been a wonderful experience, and we wish her the best in her future."
West Aurora made a steady, spectacular climb in Carlini's four years. It began with a 14-20 record her freshman year, then up to 21-12 and third in the DVC as a sophomore, 24-13 and a first conference championship as a junior and finally 30-5 (through the regular season) this fall to repeat as DuPage Valley champs.
"Each year the team has built upon the previous year's experiences and their talents and weaknesses, and this is the best way to end my senior year," Carlini said. "I'm just so proud of everybody for working hard all year and never giving up on each other and being good teammates."
Her ability to do everything on the court sets Carlini apart from some other elite players. She's made her name on the national scene as a setter but also can hit, pass, block and serve with anyone.
She's also shown her leadership skills in taking a West Aurora program that had never won a DVC title before she got there -- most years they were in the bottom half looking way up at the likes of Naperville North, Naperville Central and Wheaton Warrenville South -- into a two-time conference champion.
"She clearly makes everyone around her better," Butler said. "She sets a great model for others around her, it makes all the kids want to work harder and get better. The other kids at West Aurora see Lauren and how talented she is and they have worked to get better. It's been a win-win for both Lauren and West Aurora. The West Aurora program is significantly better now."
Carlini has been a workout warrior in the offseason. She's increased her vertical leap, now touching 10 feet, 1 1/2 inches.
"Her work ethic is outstanding," Butler said. "She is dialed into what the coaches need. She loves the weight room. She's always had great reviews by all her coaches. At practice she always gives 100 percent, and she hasn't let any of the success go to her head."
She's also an avid reader, doing this interview after returning from the library with seven books.
"I like reading about military and especially the Navy Seals," Carlini said. "It's kind of fascinating to me to see what they have to go through to protect other people. That just blows my mind people like that, that is their mindset."
Carlini committed to Wisconsin in March 2010 after first attending a Wisconsin camp as a seventh-grader. Carlini also was considering Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska and UCLA among the 40 to 50 schools that had expressed interest. Badgers coach Pete Waite told Carlini it is the earliest he has offered any player a scholarship.
Her experience playing for the U.S. junior national team and international volleyball has helped shape what Carlini wants to do after her college career.
Carlini plans to major in marketing or business at Wisconsin and wants to play professionally, possibly in Brazil, Russia or Italy with an eye on the 2020 Olympic Games.
"When I went overseas two summers ago I enjoyed getting to see all the different types of cultures and people so I'm really excited to be able to experience that again," said Carlini, adding she's glad how her early commitment to Wisconsin turned out.
"I just want to help out the team anyway I can whether it be setting and hitting or just setting. I just want to enhance my volleyball skills and make the team better and hopefully win a Big Ten title somewhere in there. I held strong with my decision and knew that's where I wanted to go. I'm just happy that everything has been working out the way I want to. I'm really excited to get there next fall."
West Aurora defeated Glenbard East on Oct. 18 to clinch their first outright DVC title. For the past four years after a Blackhawks match, the opposing DVC coaches had nothing but glowing things to say about Carlini, and Rams coach Marci Maier wound up with the final chance.
"She's a phenomenal player, absolutely a phenomenal player. She's been fun to watch for four years, however, don't take this wrong," said Maier, repeating a line Geneva coach KC Johnsen uttered back in September after watching Carlini fire 7 aces in a 10-point stretch, "I'm glad to see her go.
"We played against her for four years, phenomenal player, fun to watch. When you are that graceful, when you have all the moves, all the tools, it's just very fun to watch.
"She's got the whole package. She's got the knowledge, she's big, she's strong, she's fundamentally sound but more importantly she's extremely smart and she's volleyball intelligent also. When you put all that, she's the real deal, she's the whole package. We're going to see her playing on the Big Ten Network and say, 'Hey we played against that girl.'"
And there's going to be a lot of young girls who watch those same Wisconsin games and say, "Hey, we got that girl's autograph."