When Taylor Krage -- or any outside hitter -- goes up for a big swing to put away a key point, she has a lot of information to process in a very short amount of time.
With so little time to decide what to do, often that hitter will fall back on what she does best -- swing as hard as she can and hope to overpower the defense.
Krage, though, is quite crafty. Sure, the senior at St. Charles North and Northern Illinois recruit can hit the ball as hard as anyone.
But she's also able to use that split second while in the air to find the smallest hole in the defense and end the point with a well-placed shot, even if it isn't always on a vicious swing.
"It's not always about going up and swinging as hard as you can," Krage said. "Because those players on the outside usually aren't going to have a good efficiency because you are usually going to be hitting into the block or right around it where the defense is.
"I've always been trying to work on my court vision so when you are up in the air you have to look and see is the right back short, is the right back deep, is the left back inside the block, outside the block. There's all kinds of things you go through in your head. It's crazy because it's one split second. But you have to make a decision based on all of that."
Krage made those decisions exceptionally well, totaling 267 kills during the North Stars' 28-5 regular season. The captain of this year's Daily Herald All-Area Team, Krage was front and center on a team that made plenty of program history this fall.
"Taylor is an exceptionally smart hitter. She knows exactly when to pound a ball and when to use her finesse," North Stars coach Lindsey Hawkins said.
"One of the reasons she frustrates teams so much is because her margin of error is so extremely small, and for an outside hitter, that's a hard quality to find because they get the ball so much. But her hitting efficiency is so high because she is so smart with the ball, gets a lot of kills from being so smart with the ball, and very rarely makes any hitting errors."
Hawkins has seen Krage be quite efficient during her three years in the North Stars' lineup. Hawkins said it is not just the mental skills that make Krage a difference-maker.
"She's the type of player who is extremely analytic, so she reads defenses really well and understands based on what the defense is doing, where the open holes are going to be on the opponent's side," Hawkins said. "But for many athletes, that's the easy part -- the hard part is finding a way to put the ball in those holes, which Taylor does to perfection. I think that playing at such a high level of volleyball during her club season over the past three years has really helped her develop this skill. She has had to face some of the top players in the country, as well as other countries, so she's really had to build a repertoire of shots."
Krage is the third of four children to Tom and Valerie. All four have played volleyball, starting with her brother Jordan at St. Charles North.
Taylor was in first grade at the time.
"He got us all hooked," Taylor said. "I grew up in the volleyball world my whole life."
Older sister Ashley followed and now plays club volleyball at Missouri. Her younger sister Daley is a sophomore on St. Charles North and teammates with Taylor.
The two also played together on the same team when they were in sixth and fourth grade. The sisters get along well and also push each other.
"Being the same position it's very supportive but there's a little bit of a rivalry," Taylor said. "It works to our advantage."
After playing her share of soccer and other sports growing up, by the time Taylor got to middle school she decided volleyball was the sport for her. She's played the last seven years for Club Fusion out of Marengo, and this past summer she was part of a national championship team.
"I just decided I liked volleyball better than those other sports," Krage said. "I love how fast-paced of a game it is because points are scored so often. Volleyball is so quick-paced and onto the next point and onto the next point. I've always loved that part."
Not everything came smoothly at the start. Now 6-foot-1, Krage said she's always been tall for her age but that it made learning volleyball a challenge when she started.
"Everyone, you start so much older, not when you are 5 but when you are 12, a lot of people it's an awkward stage and you are having a huge growth spurt," Krage said. "I definitely tried to focus on a lot of ball control aspects when I was younger because those were things I had more control over than trying to hit because that took a lot more coordination. I've always prided myself on my ball control skills. My club team I was one of the smaller girls, played back row, that was my way to get on the court."
Between club and high school seasons, Krage doesn't get much time away from volleyball. Even when she has a chance.
"Even if I have free time I end up sitting at home and watching all the Big Ten matches on TV," Krage said. "It's really cool almost every team in the Big Ten there's a girl we've played against in club. It's cool to see all the improvements they can make."
Krage has been a big part of the St. Charles North attack all three years on varsity. In both her sophomore and junior seasons the North Stars won regional titles.
Her senior season has been even better.
St. Charles North opened the year with 14 straight wins -- the best start in program history. Included in that streak was the first win over St. Charles East in Hawkins' six years.
The North Stars won a share of the Upstate Eight Conference River Division and also won tournament titles at Plainfield, Minooka and Wheaton Warrenville South -- the first three in the school's history.
"This team has been really blessed with depth and the fact we are so young is a blessing is for us," Krage said. "We didn't know what to expect before the season started because we had so many girls new to varsity. We didn't know what to think coming into this one but they have been stepping up a lot."
Krage credited Sydney Wohlert and Shea Miller -- her teammates both in club volleyball and also with the North Stars -- with helping teach the North Stars' newcomers. "Girls that really knew what it takes to win and were able to lead the younger girls," Krage described.
Hawkins has had a front-row seat for watching Krage's strides the past three years.
"Taylor has improved an enormous amount," Hawkins said. "I always knew that she would be a phenomenal leader some day for our team and our program. She has such a great work ethic and is such a team player.
"She is one of the most selfless teammates I have had the privilege of coaching -- you will often see Taylor get a kill and turn to whoever passed the ball and congratulate them, then thank the setter, and especially thank the middle hitter for drawing the blocker's attention and getting Taylor an open shot. She very rarely takes the credit or the glory."
To illustrate her point, Hawkins told a story from earlier this fall. A couple North Star freshmen came up to Krage and asked for her autograph.
The gesture caught Krage off guard. Surprised and flattered, she gave the autographs.
"It's funny because I often don't think Taylor knows how good she is, or at least she doesn't show it," Hawkins said. "That's the kind of person that she is though. She's extremely humble. I'm so proud of Taylor and the player and person she has become. I always saw this potential in her, so I feel very privileged to have been a part of this magical season with her, and to have had her in my life. She will truly be missed when she graduates, but the legacy she has built will continue on."
The next chapter in Krage's career will come at Northern Illinois where Krage committed to last spring.
"It's really exciting because it is close to home and my family will be able to come out and watch all the time," Krage said. "And it also worked out perfectly because I want to be a teacher because it will get me certified in the state and I can come right back home and hopefully get a teaching job."
Krage wants to teach preschool or early elementary, she also wants to get into coaching, and she wants to do it close to home.
"It's just a really nice area and people say they don't like the climate here but I love how we get a little bit of everything," Krage said. "On both sides of family we are very large. It's hard to imagine not being able to see them all the time."
Just like it's hard to imagine St. Charles North volleyball without Taylor Krage.