Boys volleyball: Healthy outlook despite rough circumstances for Stevenson
There are 15 players on the Stevenson boys volleyball roster.
When two of the top players on the team, hitters Justin Leonard and Grant Maleski, went down in February with serious injuries just before the season began, the Patriots thought that was a tough blow.
Little did they know that was just the start of it.
More than half the roster has been compromised since then. One by one this season, Stevenson players have been going down with injury or illness, a total of eight players overall.
Foot (Matt Cliffer) and ankle (Michael Krebs) and toe (Hudson Havenhill) and wrist (Maleski) and finger (Leonard) and abdominal (Leonard) injuries have required time off and missed games. Illnesses (Leonard, Leo Chen, Alex Lulka, Sudhish Gogula) have also been prevalent, and one even required a hospital stay (Gogula).
Even head coach Eric Goolish hasn't been immune. He got seriously ill too, and spent two days in the hospital last week with the Norovirus.
"It's definitely weird," said Maleski, out with a broken wrist suffered at a club volleyball tournament in St. Louis. "It seems like everywhere you look, one of our teammates or coaches is going down with an injury or illness.
"I don't know what it is. You kind of start to wonder what is going to happen next."
Of course, the Patriots are hoping that nothing but a full recovery happens next. They are keeping their fingers crossed that their roster will be in tact with 15 healthy, abled bodies for the stretch run of the season.
Stevenson managed to place second in last weekend's big Lake County Invite, but has struggled otherwise to a 9-10 record, atypical of one of the perennially better programs in the county.
"I hate excuses, but with eight guys down, that's over half our team and in our sport, consistency and rhythm is so important, and when you don't have it, it's a real challenge," Goolish said. "We've been relentlessly sick and injured and it causes stress for everyone. Before I took over as head coach three years ago, I was the assistant for seven years, and we've had more injuries this year than in all those seven years combined. It's been like a revolving door for us this season.
"We've missed all the guys who have been out this season. But when you're without two guys like Grant and Justin, that's huge. They are irreplaceable."
Maleski and Leonard are seasoned veterans considered to be among the most talented players in the area. Both have been varsity starters for the last three years.
At 6-foot-8, and the tallest in a family of six where everyone is 6-foot-1 or taller, Maleski stands out for his size. He's a blocking machine and can be effective hitting outside or middle with his long reach. Last season, Maleski led Stevenson in blocks and kills.
Just a junior, he has already committed to play volleyball in college at UCLA, a perennial power.
"I bring some offense and blocking with my length," said Maleski, who has yet to play a match this season. "I think I bring some experience, too."
The 6-foot-5 Leonard, who broke his pinkie finger at the same club volleyball tournament where Maleski got hurt and is now dealing with an abdominal injury as well as an illness, is a strong leaper and hard hitter who can turn even imperfect sets into the perfect kills.
He played 6 matches recently when his broken finger was given the OK for action. But then he strained an ab muscle and has since gotten sick. That's put him back on the shelf again.
"It's been frustrating, but I'll get back and I'm going to bring a confidence to our team. I try to think that I can get a kill every time I touch the ball," said Leonard, who plans to go out for the club volleyball team at the University of Illinois next year. "I can see the blocks pretty well, I can jump pretty well. I think when I get kills consistently, it helps everyone's confidence."
The Patriots' confidence has been tested constantly this season. The lineup has often been different from one match to the next. Players who were tabbed as role players at the beginning of the season are now being asked to make key plays at key times.
"We're putting a lot of kids in positions where we're asking them to do more than they're probably comfortable with," Goolish said. "And when they don't see success, they start to lose confidence.
"Guys like Grant and Justin have played so much on these high-caliber club teams and they are so talented that they want the ball in tough situations. We've had a lot of younger kids with not a lot of experience playing for us this season and they doubt a lot. They're unsure if they want the ball."
To help change that, Maleski and Leonard have turned to their inner coaches. Since they can't play, they have decided that one way they can positively impact the team is by helping younger players with form and technique. They also give suggestions to their teammates about strategy during games. And they pitch helpful drills to the coaches during practice, and then shag balls during those drills.
"It's like we added two more coaches to the team," Leonard said. "Grant and I just try to be as helpful as we can."
Maleski and Leonard are often leading the loudest cheers as well.
"It's a new feeling sitting on the bench, but it can be really fun to cheer on your friends and teammates," Maleski said. "It's nice to be able to help your teammates.
"This really isn't what we expected for the start of this season, but it's also not the worst thing for our team. A lot of guys are getting varsity experience they might not have gotten this season. I think that will help us be a stronger team when everyone is back healthy."
That could happen within the next two weeks.
Leonard will be back any day now, and Maleski will likely get the green light for competition in early May.
The Patriots, who have been ousted in the regional semifinals the last two years, are hoping that the return of Leonard and Maleski will give them the shot in the arm they need to end their rut of early tournament exits.
"We're hopeful and optimistic," Goolish said. "Even though we're going through rough times now, this is making a lot of kids better. And when we get our top guys back, we'll be even better off.
"The challenge is, will we have enough time to turn it around and pull it all together?"
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