With one of the state's top setters on the roster, Waubonsie Valley opened the 2013 season with a 5-1 offense designed to allow Rachel Minarick to get her very talented hands on as many passes as possible.
But the Warriors couldn't even get through that season-opening Benet Invite without switching to a 6-2 attack designed to allow Minarick to get as many kills as possible, while still using her exceptional setting skills to guide the program to what may turn out to be the most successful season in school history.
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The Michigan State-bound Minarick has excelled in all facets of her game this season while leading the Warriors to a 28-7 regular-season mark heading into this week's Class 4A Bolingbrook regional. While you'll be hard-pressed to find a better setter in the area, Minarick's attacking is just too valuable to pass up, and her dominating overall play this season has earned her 2013 Daily Herald All-Area Team Captain honors.
"Setting is definitely the thing that I want to focus on, and it's the thing you have to think about the entire match and watch the other side and the block, but hitting's definitely fun and you get to contribute in that way also. It feels good," said Minarick, who recorded 346 kills, 431 assists, 42 aces and 144 digs heading into the postseason, where the Warriors are seeded fourth at the Plainfield South sectional.
Waubonsie Valley coach Kristen Stuart, who played for a Naperville Central team that went downstate in 1998, just couldn't stick with a system that limited Minarick's chances to slam the ball down.
"At the end of the Benet tournament, we switched to a 6-2 and then in one game, she had 10 kills. Not a match, one game," said Stuart, who in her seventh year as the Warriors coach won a career-high 28 games, a mark expected to climb to at least 29 in the regionals and eclipse the school record of 28 wins in a season. "So we said OK, we need to do this. I was hoping we could get through the year with a 5-1 because she's so good and you want your best player touching every second ball, but she's our best hitter by far. Her efficiency is much higher than anybody else by far, so we needed it."
The 6-foot-3 Minarick started playing club volleyball in seventh grade, and because she was always one of the taller players on teams, she played outside. She also stuck with track and basketball a couple more years before she shifted her focus solely to volleyball after starting on the outside her freshman year on a Waubonsie Valley team that won 27 matches and claimed a regional title.
It was her switch to the Sports Performance club following her freshman year that really helped her blossom as a setter. She developed so quickly that by the spring of her sophomore year she was committed to play at Michigan State for coach Cathy George. The Spartans, who feature senior setter Kristen Kelsey out of St. Francis, will be getting a player who has worked hard to perfect her trade.
"I didn't really have any setter training," Minarick says of her pre-SPRI times. "I didn't really know footwork or the proper way to use your hands. I worked with Troy Gilb, the setting coach at Sports Performance, and he helped me every day after school. I'd go in and set balls against the wall and I would just stand and watch my hands and sit on the ground and set. I'd go home and I'd have my mom toss me balls. At times I thought it was impossible. I'd say, I can't change my hands completely, but lots of hard work gets you places."
The hard work has not only paid off for Minarick as a player but also as a team leader. Stuart says Minarick's work ethic rubs off on teammates and her talent gives others something to strive for. On top of that, her incredible drive to win helps both Minarick and her team thrive.
"We'll miss her not only as a player but as a person," said Stuart, who considers Minarick the best player ever to walk the halls at Waubonsie Valley. "She's definitely a great role model for the younger players in the classroom as a leader, as a teammate. She's a very kind teammate. What sets her apart is not only her physical ability, obviously she's physically gifted, but she has an intense competitive drive.
"She wants to win more than anyone I've coached. She hates to lose so much. Some people are OK with it and she is not OK with it and that makes her fight that much harder in those tougher matches."
Warriors junior outside Becky Breuer, the beneficiary of many a perfect pass from Minarick, knows she's playing with a special talent this season.
"She's incredibly consistent and reliable. She makes the least amount ofmistakes as anyone I have ever played with," Breuer said. "She's just a constant positive energy that is always here on the court. She'll always help you out whenever you need it."
Just as Stuart noted, Breuer says the Warriors are at their best when Minarick is not only setting up her team with great passes but also pounding down her own share of kills.
"We started with a 5-1 at the Benet Invite and it just … Rachel has so much offensive capability that we need to use her," Breuer said. "She is so fast and hits so hard that it takes other teams off guard. She can run such a quick offense that it slips the block off our hitters and we can get kills that way."
Minarick, who was named all-tournament at the Benet Invite, Wheaton Classic, Warrior Blast and Autumnfest, lists a sweep of rival Neuqua Valley in the Warrior Blast finals as one of this year's highlights.
"We have a really close-knit group of girls and we really wanted to do well this season," Minarick said. "We knew we had the pieces to do it so if we worked for it we would get there. As for Neuqua (which Waubonsie Valley beat four times this season), they've always been our rivals so anytime you beat them it's going to feel good. But to win the Warrior Blast for the first time, to be in the championship match against them, all of those things combined, and then to play really well and crush them, it felt really good."
With Minarick at the top of her game, capturing another regional crown to go with the one she received as a freshman, is a good bet. If that happens, she'll also be a part of at least 100 wins and only further secure her legacy as the school's best player ever.
"It's been a big journey and each team has had different chemistry and I think it's been a good experience leadership wise and to work with different types of people," she said. "On our Senior Night we were all crying afterward at our banquet … we're a really close tight-knit group, and I think you can really see on the court. If we're ever struggling we support each other and we're never gong to yell at each other. Volleyball is such a sport of motivation that you don't ever want to be down on each other. They can be down on the other side, but stay up on your side."
Thanks to Minarick, the Warriors have had little trouble staying up on their side over the last four years.