The Neuqua Valley boys volleyball players surprised almost everyone this season. That is, everyone but themselves.
With every starter graduated from last year's team, a squad consisting of veteran reserves and JV graduates, the Wildcats went 32-6.
They won a pair of in-season tournaments (Benet and Springfest), the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division championship and went to the sectional finals before dropping a three-setter to eventual state champion Downers Grove South.
Senior setter Alex Coyne, who dished out almost 700 assists, is credited with being the engine that made this remarkable team run, and he's selected as captain of Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area team.
"Alex's play helped elevate the play of everyone else," said Neuqua Valley coach Erich Mendoza. "He does everything so well that sometimes you take for granted how important he's been for this team. He's athletic and he has good body control. He can jump and adjust his body to make a perfect set even when the pass isn't perfect. He can also set up a good block on the outside and he's a threat to get the kill."
As a setter, the 6-foot-3 Coyne did such a great job of distributing the ball and involving all the Wildcats hitters that in many of their victories Neuqua's scoring leader had only 4 or 5 kills.
"He's great at recognizing situations and understanding what his best options are," Mendoza said. "Because he didn't start last year, Alex knew what he had to do in the off-season to improve so he could take over the leadership of this year's team. And he came into his senior season knowing what it takes to play winning volleyball."
Coyne and fellow seniors, libero Matt Porter and outside hitter Jeremy Royko, were the only three returnees who got appreciable playing time off the bench last year, so that offseason work in club volleyball was important for everyone in this year's Neuqua Valley playing mix.
"Nobody expected much from us this year, because we didn't have any returning starters," Coyne said. "But we all took club very seriously. Half of us played at Naperville Volleyball Club and half at Sports Performance."
Coyne said that from the outset he could see the improvement in everyone and the commitment they had to making the senior year a success.
"We knew we had the skills and we wanted to prove to everyone that we were one of the top teams in the area," Coyne said. "Everyone just kept getting better as the year went on."
The seniors had all been in the Neuqua program since their freshman year, so the chemistry and the familiarity was there. As co-captains Coyne and Porter's main function was to keep everyone positive and optimistic.
"I tried to keep everyone loose," Coyne said. "I'd crack a few jokes in order to keep everyone happy. My dad always told me that you play 100 percent better with a smile on your face. He was relating it to golf, but it's true in all sports. You have a better chance to succeed if you're enjoying yourself."
Coyne's signature headband, which had been his cub scout neckerchief, started out as a lighthearted gesture.
"I wore it for our first match of the year against Naperville North just for fun," Coyne said. "I wanted to look ridiculous partly for my friends on Naperville North, like Nikolai Jackowski and Dan Koch. But it just stuck and I kept it for the rest of the year."
"Alex doesn't take himself too seriously," Mendoza said. "He's always kidding around on the bus. But he is serious about volleyball. He's a student of the game."
Coyne credits his Wildcats teammates, who include an abundance of athletic, smart hitters who made his job relatively easy, citing starters Royko, Cal Rafferty, Jack Ovington, James Marton, Griffin Shields and Adam Zimmerman.
"Our guys always delivering smart shots and a variety of shots forced the other team out of system," Coyne said. "When our passing was precise, I could run a quicker set and I always had several options open to me. That passing was the key to our success."
Coyne said he learned a great deal his junior year as a reserve behind senior Ryan Cahill.
"Ryan took me under his wing," Coyne said. He stressed the fundamentals to help me further my game and skills, especially my footwork. He really helped me improve my game, so I'm trying to pass that along to our junior setter Aaron Lauth, who will take over next year."
Lauth says that Coyne has really been a great mentor.
"Alex is a role model for me and he's a great friend," Lauth said. "He has unparalleled court vision and he knows everyone's system, because he studies other players in club and he applies the knowledge he picks up to the high school season. His court presence and his great composure all season are things that I can learn from."
Coyne will attend Dominican University along with a slew of other Daily Herald all-stars, including Brooks Nevrly of Downers Grove North, Nick Timreck of Downers Grove South, Zach Sinn of Wheaton North, Robbie Mead of Hinsdale South and Trevor Slonek of West Chicago.