If Sheila Doyle pinched herself, not a soul could blame her.
Is this all just a dream?
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Three short years ago, Doyle was toiling on Benet's Freshman B volleyball team. She was just another face among a mass of volleyball talent. Volleyball wasn't even Doyle's first love; that would be basketball.
The next fall Doyle crossed her fingers hoping she'd make final cuts for the sophomore team.
Now a senior, Doyle is perhaps the best libero in the state on the No. 1 team in Illinois. Her future is secure, too, with a volleyball scholarship to North Carolina.
"My parents and I laugh about it all the time, like where did this all come from," Doyle said. "Who'd a thunk all this would happen to me."
In this era of specialization, where girls and boys hone in on one sport at earlier and earlier ages and elite talent is identified before kids are even able to drive, a story like Doyle's is exceedingly rare.
"She has picked up the game faster and improved more over the last two years than anyone I've ever seen before," Benet coach Brad Baker said.
This year Doyle has 307 digs in quarterbacking a relentless defense and has served at a 97 percent rate for Benet, 34-2 after Tuesday's regional win over Downers Grove South. She was MVP of the Autumnfest and Benet Invite tournaments.
For it all Doyle is the 2012 Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area Captain. Doyle joins 2008 captain Ariana Mankus from Benet, and with 2006 captain Lindsey Mango from Naperville Central she is the second libero to earn the honor.
Doyle set for her St. Francis Xavier grade school team in LaGrange Park, moving to libero at Benet. Her parents and four older siblings attended Benet before her, older brother Mick starring on the baseball team and going on to Notre Dame. Her big extended family includes cousin Jack Toner, a receiver on Benet's playoff football team.
Basketball was long Doyle's go-to sport, but after winning the libero job midway through her sophomore year Benet sophomore coach Kyle Reid suggested she try playing club.
Doyle joined First Alliance after her sophomore year and started three rotations to begin her junior year. She was moved to varsity libero at Mizuno Cup last October.
Benet proceeded to win 36 straight matches and a state championship.
"Two kids that she beat out last year, they're on (Division I) collegiate rosters now," Baker said. "It's not like it's been handed to her."
Going into this year, Baker demanded even more of Doyle.
Transitioning to a hybrid of perimeter and rotational defenses, Doyle is counted on to cover much more ground -- basically, half the court. Her quickness and agility helps, but like a magnet to metal Doyle seems to possess a sixth sense to where the ball is going.
"It's one thing to be a good defensive player when the ball is hit to you," Baker said. "Sheila's ability to read before the ball is served or spiked at her is at a level that I have not seen in a long time."
"Honestly, a big part is where everybody else on the court is," Doyle said. "When they are in a good position I am able to align myself perfectly. I'm just reading shoulders and arm swings. I think my experience playing basketball helps in terms of anticipating and reading where the ball is going to go."
Endurance is a must, too. It can be dizzying to watch all the running a libero and setter must go through during a typical match. Doyle readied herself running hills at Four Lakes twice a week with teammates before the season.
"We anticipated going in that we were going to have a lot of long rallies," Doyle said. "Little stuff like that helps."
A good libero is essential in two often-overlooked ingredients that make or break a volleyball team: serve-receive, and defense. Doyle is the rare case who combines the full package.
"That makes her a valuable asset to a team like Benet that wants to run a fast offense. She is the key to getting it all started," said Joliet Catholic coach Chris Scheibe. "As an opponent you try to avoid her. But she is so aggressive going for the ball and she moves so well that you cannot avoid her."
Doyle's value to Benet, though, goes beyond the physical skills on the court. At 5-foot-5 she doesn't exactly tower over her teammates. Watch any Benet match and Doyle stands out as an emotional and verbal leader.
"Certain kids have that 'It,' that motor," Baker said, "kids that push themselves and push other kids and are not afraid to speak up at difficult times, to say the things that aren't the most comfortable things to be said. Sheila is willing to do those things."
Doyle in a sense personifies what this particular Benet team is all about.
Graduating 10 seniors and 95 percent of its offense, few expected Benet to be this good. Most of these girls do not play on their club program's top team. Most of them, like Doyle, had to wait their turn on the bench before getting their chance to shine.
If folks outside the program said they couldn't match last year, Doyle and her friends have answered on the court with a resounding, "Yes we can."
"It was a goal of ours to come in, work hard and prove to people that yes, we are a good team," Doyle said. "We were definitely confident. Hard work has shown us to be correct."