Girls volleyball: Naperville North's Kushner grew into a special player
Back in 2015 Sarah Kushner was a 5-foot-9 freshman doing her best to help make the volleyball season a special one for the Naperville North upperclassmen.
Despite being surrounded by several talented veterans, Kushner made a name for herself as a rookie and played a key role when the Huskies upset higher seeds Geneva and St. Charles North on their way to the sectional finals.
Kushner's strong debut season was only a glimpse of what was in store in a future that saw both her game and the school's program grow stronger each year.
This season it was Kushner, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter, playing the role of talented senior. She was helped to a sectional finals return by a group of eager youngsters, including her sister Ashley Kushner, a freshman libero.
But make no mistake, it was Kushner playing the biggest role for Huskies teams that won three regionals in the last four years, recorded back-to-back seasons of at least 30 wins and claimed the DuPage Valley Conference championship this fall.
"Other than my senior year, that (first year) was probably my second favorite year," said Kushner, the DuPage County All-Area Team Captain for a campaign that saw her record 375 kills, 291 digs, 38 aces and marks of .290 in hitting and 2.38 in passing. "When you're a freshman, you don't even really know what's going on in school, let alone volleyball.
"But I just remember it being a great time. We didn't have the best season record-wise, but I learned what it was like to play at the next level I think right away.
"In high school our season is not that long compared to club, so you don't have time to waste."
The three-time Daily Herald All-Area player -- who finishes third in varsity kills at Naperville North and who was the team MVP this year and last -- wasted little time honing her skills in the gym and was quick to learn lessons from older players.
"I remember that I was always trying to play for my seniors because I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "So as long I was trying my best for them that was all I knew to do. I think me and the underclassmen helped them have a special year (in 2015). Then that's what the underclassmen did for me (this year). They did all they could to make it the best season they could for me."
With fellow All-Area player Grace Selman running a strong offense and libero Molly Russell excelling on defense, the Kushner-led Huskies had another special year. A tight loss to top-seeded Benet in the sectional finals ended their bid to reach the state finals, but that couldn't prevent Kushner and her teammates from holding their heads high when looking back at the 31-7 season.
"Obviously, we were all very emotional. It's tough when your season ends and you've been working super hard," she said of the 25-21, 26-24 loss to the Redwings. "Everyone was working as hard as they could to just try to do their best. I know all of the seniors especially, we left it all out on the court. (The Redwings are) a great team. They work very hard and they do have a really good history and legacy."
Now the Illinois State recruit can take pride in helping the school's program become one of the top ones in the state.
"Now that it is over and I had to try and reflect on it more, I realize I have been so lucky that I got to play all four years and it feels like I've had a lot of success," said Kushner, who plays for the Sports Performance club outside of the high school volleyball season. "When I was a freshman on the team, I had some great seniors that really set the model for me, so, ever since then I kind of knew what the expectations were … how hard you had to work to have a really good season. This year and last year we had 30 wins or more and that really is a big accomplishment."
While not the prototypical 6-foot-and-up star hitter, Kushner uses her great leaping ability and fluid, powerful swinging motion to power her attacks through and around opposing teams' blocks. But the strides she's made on the mental side have been just as impressive.
Neuqua Valley coach Kelly Simon, whose team beat the Huskies in conference play, had their season ended after Kushner and her teammates played exceptionally well in the regional championship.
"Sarah is an amazing athlete. In the regional championship she made it known by her leadership on the court that her team was not losing ... her teammates followed her lead," Simon said. "I have been impressed by Sarah every time I have seen her play either across the net from my team or watching from the bleachers.
"She is a tremendous role model, not only to her sister and teammates, but to my players who speak so highly of her as an athlete and person. I would have loved to have her on my team and had the privilege of coaching her."
Kushner is as proud of her leadership growth as she is in her overall game's growth.
"Obviously the skill improved as I've gotten older, but I think I grew the most as a leader," she said. "It took a lot of practice but this year I knew what to do right from the start, and I knew what we needed to do in order to have success. I was able to have other people follow what I was doing in order for that to happen.
"My favorite thing is when someone gets a really good dig -- they hit it really hard but we dig it -- and then I just put it down. That's probably the greatest thing."
The highlights and memories are too many to list, but beating highly regarded Geneva in the postseason as a freshman, piling up the wins, and getting to close out her days at Naperville North with her sister on the team are moments Kushner will not soon forget.
"Obviously I was upset last night and it took a little time to cool off," she said the day after the Huskies' loss to Benet. "Looking back now, the time has flown by just because of how much I've enjoyed playing for this program. I feel like it has been so successful.
"Every year it got better and better. I'm super excited for all the girls who get to come back next year and do it again. I'm jealous I don't get to do it for another year, but I'm happy with the time I put in and what I got out of it."
Kushner has two younger sisters playing volleyball, including Ashley, who added to this year's satisfaction.
"I loved everyone on my team and it was especially great playing with my sister because I know that's never going to happen again," Kushner said. "I don't know why, but I never really thought we'd ever be on the same team … I've just watched her. The fact that I was able to play with her, I'll never forgot this. I'm so sad I can't do it again but it was amazing. The coaches that we have are great and I've just been pushed every year."
Coach Jen Urban will surely miss her standout.
"It has been an absolute pleasure to coach Sarah over the last four years. She has single-handedly raised the level of work ethic, communication and expectation in our gym. She leaves Naperville North as one of the most decorated volleyball players in Naperville North history," Urban said.