Boys volleyball: Neuqua Valley's Kauling never shied from extra work
Neuqua Valley's Kevin Kauling has produced countless highlight-reel plays in his four years on the boys volleyball varsity.
At 6-foot-7 with elite athleticism, a high IQ and next-level court awareness, Kauling is among the best setters in the country. He led the Wildcats to the program's fourth state appearance last season, plus a record four consecutive regional championships.
For his efforts Kauling is the Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area Team Captain for 2019. It marks the second straight season that Kauling, a Lewis University recruit, earned the distinction as the top player in DuPage County.
Despite possessing a rare blend of size, height and athleticism for a setter, Kauling's relentless work ethic paved the way to become a once-in-a-generation talent in the Naperville area.
Tory Gilb has become accustomed to marveling at Kauling displaying awe-inspiring moments on the court.
But Gilb, the boys director at Sports Performance Volleyball in Aurora, points to Kauling's work ethic as the main key to his success. Gilb, also the coach of the Sports Performance 18Elite team, has coached Kauling for the last two years.
So Gilb wasn't shocked when he saw Kauling stroll through the doors at Sports Performance on Tuesday -- a few hours before the start of Neuqua Valley's Hinsdale South supersectional showdown against Hinsdale Central.
"I think the big thing with Kevin is he's a really good player," Gilb said. "He's one of top players in the country, but what sets me apart is his work ethic. He really puts in a lot of extra work during his off days. Nobody works as hard (in our program). A lot of kids at the top of their game in the state, region or country, they don't have his type of work ethic.
"That's why I wasn't surprised to see him in our gym on the day of his supersectional. He had a big match, but he was still in the gym working. That goes to show you how hard he works."
Even though he missed 12 matches to play in Peru and due to a subsequent ankle injury, Kauling collected 463 assists, 135 kills, 36 blocks, 29 aces and 132 digs through the sectional championship. Kauling said he cherished leading the Wildcats to the brink of another state trip.
"It was a fun experience this year," Kauling said. "We had such a great run last year and the last couple of years getting the program back on track. It was special being so close to the guys on the team."
Building off last season
All eyes were on Kauling at last season's state tournament. After missing the Wildcats' three-set state quarterfinal win over Lincoln-Way West for tryouts for the U.S. national team in Colorado, Springs, Colorado, Kauling caused an uproar by making an unscheduled early return to the state semifinals the next day.
His arrival sparked the Wildcats to a program-best second-place finish in the state tournament. But the Wildcats lost five starters from the 33-win team, leaving Kauling and Jeremy Cardenas to shoulder the bulk of the load for a young team.
Still, even with Kauling missing three weeks due to international play, the Wildcats came within one win of another state bid. Kauling said last year's second-place finish was his best highlight in high school.
"It was a really big deal for me personally getting second," he said. "Putting the program back on track was a really big deal. I didn't feel any pressure coming back this year. It wasn't stressful. I enjoyed the competition and using this season as a building path to the next level."
Neuqua Valley coach Erich Mendoza said Kauling left a lasting impact in the program and the surrounding area that will make aspiring volleyball players strive to match his success. Kauling finished as the program's all-time leader in assists, blocks and aces.
"We may never have a player of his caliber come through our school, let alone in the area again," Mendoza said. "It's a big void to fill. The big thing for us as a program is the other guys will see for a high caliber player like Kevin, he's a really hard worker.
"He spends a lot of time in the gym, at Sports Performance, working on his game to be the best. As a coach, it was really fun to see him grow. He's a completely different player now than three years ago in terms of his skill set."
Although he fell short of winning a state championship, Kauling's long-term aspirations include many more years continuing to add to his volleyball resume. He's set to attend a tryout in Florida to compete in Europe that could lead to a late start at Lewis. Kauling, a former swimmer, credits his two sisters, parents and coaches for leading him down the path of volleyball stardom.
"I started playing in fourth or fifth grade because of my sisters," Kauling said. "I thought I would like it. In eighth grade I felt setting would be a good idea and that's when I realized I wanted to do something in the Olympics in swimming or volleyball. It was a really big dream for me. Going international has helped me. It made me look at the world in a different way."
Kauling admitted his success has come at a cost. When his friends spent weekends attending social events, Kauling often rested or worked on his game. It's a price that Kauling, a studious and reflective type, doesn't mind paying because of his long-term goals in volleyball.
"I don't think a lot of people relate to me," Kauling said. "My sisters and me, we didn't go to huge parties on Friday or Saturday night in high school. We stayed in and also ate healthy. But I do every once in awhile go out and have fun on a Friday or Saturday night. I'm excited for the future and the next steppingstone in my career."