Girls volleyball: Downers Grove North surprises WW South in tournament third-place match
The prodigious skills of Campbell commit Gwen Wolkow keeps Downers Grove North in every girls volleyball match.
But it is the steadiness of unheralded role players like middle hitter Isa Samsa and defensive specialist Alexis Casey that helps the Trojans win matches.
The two seniors demonstrated that Saturday in Downers North's 25-10, 19-25, 25-13 upset of host Wheaton Warrenville South in the third-place match of the Wheaton Cup.
Casey had 10 service points and 12 digs, while Samsa added 8 service points and 3 kills. Both landed 3 aces as the Trojans (8-6) matched their highest finish in the tournament.
"They've got that seasoned senior vibe," Downers North coach Mark Wasik said. "They've been there and done that.
"They're not going to be fazed and they're able to execute repeatedly. They shake off mistakes faster, so they're reliable."
The Trojans, who have played one of the toughest schedules in the state, shook off a 25-20, 25-23 semifinal loss to Plainfield North and shocked WW South.
Samsa and Casey each had two aces during an opening 11-4 run, which was accomplished despite only one kill from Wolkow, who went on to lead all players with 12 kills.
The Tigers (14-4), whose eight-game winning streak ended with a 25-13, 25-21 semifinal loss to eventual champion Marist, turned the tables in the second set, racing out to a 19-7 lead.
But the Trojans made it close, with Samsa's block pulling Downers North within 24-19 before a serving error ended the rally.
The strong played carried over to the third set as the Trojans jumped out to a 4-0 lead on Casey's serving, which included two aces.
"In my head, it's just get it over and in," Casey said of her serving approach. "I'm looking at Coach for my zones, but really I'm just trying to stay focused and put that ball where it needs to be."
The Trojans did that consistently, landing 11 aces, 3 more than the Tigers.
"I think a big thing was their serves were beating our serve receive for a good chunk of the game," WW South setter Darby Harris said. "I feel when we were able to flip it and serve aggressively enough to take the out of system, that's when we saw our peak.
"Then we kind of went back in our valleys and they stepped back to the service line and did a good job. The also had a pretty good offense and our defense had some trouble keeping up with it."
Indeed, the Tigers never got in sync offensively in the final set. The Rice-bound Harris had 16 assists and 4 kills, but there was no dominant hitter. Sophomore outside Rebecca Bellows led the team with five kills.
The Trojans, though, got kills from seven players. Junior right side Colleen Engstler had 5 kills and Grace Beacom added 4, while senior setter Sandy Brindle dished 20 assists.
"We're such a close-knit team," Casey said. "When we're all being positive no matter what happens, we can always lift each other up. I feel like we all have each other's backs."
That hasn't always been the case.
"We've had games where we kind of get down on ourselves and it shows," Samsa said. "So today, being able to bring that positive energy on the court really helped us to win the game."
Despite the early-season struggles, Wasik is confident in the Trojans.
"We have played a really tough schedule and we do it purposely," Wasik said. "It means sometimes we're going to take our lumps, but it prepares us and then we see the fruits of our labor.
"This was an up-and-down match. But these girls are tough and they responded."
Samsa thinks that bodes well.
"This is a huge accomplishment for us," Samsa said. "Over the past couple weeks, we've been having some troubles working together and getting our jobs done.
"But I think this tournament has proved that once we all work together and play how we know we have to play, we can win a lot."
Harris said the Tigers can learn from that.
"I don't think we showed up today the way we could have, so I'm a little upset about that," Harris said. "We have to find a consistency that carries us every game instead of having games where we're up and games where we're down.
"We have to play together as a unit rather than six individual people. If we can consistently do that, I think a lot of these teams that got the upper hand in those matches, hopefully we'll find them again later in the season."
Marist beat Plainfield North 25-16, 25-17 in the championship match. Metea Valley beat Benet 17-25, 25-21, 25-13 for fifth place.