Girls volleyball: Scouting DuPage County

  • Paige Pickering is one of the top returnees for a Montini team that went 10-2 in the abbreviated spring season.

    Paige Pickering is one of the top returnees for a Montini team that went 10-2 in the abbreviated spring season. Daily Herald file photo

By Stan Goff
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 8/21/2021 9:39 AM

When last we had an actual state volleyball tournament, Benet Academy knocked off Wheaton Warrenville South in the Class 4A state championship showdown between a pair of DuPage County programs in the fall of 2019.

That was some time ago and a lot has changed since then. A pandemic erased all prep sports in the state in the fall of 2020 and when volleyball resumed this spring it was with an abbreviated season minus a state tournament. But to no one's surprise, the Redwings and the Tigers were great again in the spring, with the Redwings going 10-0 and the Tigers 20-5.


But the two powerhouses now enter the new season next week with different situations -- if not different goals. Benet returns no starters from a team that has been dominant the last few years, while the Tigers are loaded and led by senior setter Darby Harris, fresh off a club national championship and MVP honors this summer.

"I think the strength of this team will be in their resiliency," Tigers coach Bill Schreier said. "This has been a lot to get to this point and they are really excited to get on the court against an opponent. We should be pretty solid in ball control and defense and are excited about the new parts that we have added offensively."

WW South will be led by Harris, a 4-year starter who played libero as a sophomore on that state runner-up squad. She will be joined by two other captains -- sophomore outside hitter Rebecca Bellows and senior libero Taylor Olsen -- along with four other regulars who started at times in the spring. Seniors Lily Huntzinger and Piper Lindsay return as starters in the middle, junior Lilly King returns as an opposite hitter, and Emma Cook is an experienced defensive specialist.

"Now is the time to figure out where all of these pieces will fit. We will go through some growing pains early as we incorporate younger players with our returners from last year, but the talent in the gym cannot be denied," adds Schreier, who expects boosts from 6-foot-2 freshman Lauren Coyne and 5-11 sophomore Maddie Mlady-Gibson.

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For Benet, All-American setter Rachel Muisenga graduated in the spring with several other stars from a program that went 51-4 over the last two years. The Redwings, who have claimed four championships and seven state trophies over the past 13 seasons, will take to the court without a single player returning to the same position. Senior Annie Remmes, a highly touted 6-2 middle committed to Creighton, will miss the season after she tore her ACL over the summer at club nationals. Sam Buckley is the team's lone returning starter, but she moves to the setter slot after playing right side as a junior.

"The girls are excited about this year. They are driven to be successful and motivated to have a good season," said coach Brad Baker, who has piled up 486 wins in 14 years with just 53 losses. "With only four seniors on the roster (including Remmes), this will be the youngest team we have ever had."

Look for junior Annie Eschenbach, a 6-4 middle, and 6-3 sophomore outside Ava Novak to play big roles along with outside hitters Caelin Abramic and Evie Blacha.

Montini will be a force in Class 3A after going 10-2 in the spring, including a win over Mother McAuley. Veteran Paige Pickering, a 5-11 senior OH, will again be a force on the attack after recording 118 kills and 75 digs last season. Setter/OPP Jordan Heatherly, 6-1 middle blocker Maddie Kasallis, senior libero Reeghan Boyer and setter Hailey Goetz give the Broncos plenty of reasons to expect a big campaign.


"The girls are really excited that we get to have a full season and are looking forward to the competitiveness of our schedule," Montini coach Trish Samolinski said. "We have a ton of girls who are used to playing at a really high level."

Like Benet, Naperville North went a perfect 10-0 in the pandemic-shortened spring season. Senior libero Ashley Kushner and 6-2 senior middle blocker Kara Oxenknect are back along with junior OH Paige Lauterwasser. Oxenknect, who played a key role in the team's DuPage Valley Conference title, has committed to the University of New Hampshire. Gabby Schlect will be another target on the outside.

Across town, Naperville Central returns two players to the varsity -- Kenzie Brower (MB/OH, UCLA beach recruit) and Rachel Chalkey (OPP/setter), who paced the 10-2 squad.

"While we will be a little less experienced in the 2021 season, we have some players on the team who will make an immediate impact," Redhawks coach Brie Isaacson said. "We are still working through the exact look of our lineup this fall, but we have many players ready to contribute."

Neuqua Valley returns seven players from a team that finished third in the DVC.

"These players have shown so much growth and unity from that shortened season," Wildcats coach Kelly Simon said. "I am so proud of their resilience, and their talent this year is really showing itself in the preseason."

Led by junior unanimous All-DVC outside hitter Bryanna Jones and 6-0 middle blocker Anja Kelly, the offense has two key weapons back. Senior Jahnavi Karat will run that offense again this year with fellow senior Morgan Michalek providing setting support and defensive skills.

"Our returning seniors also offer so many options on offense with Lexie Hinderliter, Ali Hoffmann, and Kelly Anderson bringing so much skill and versatility," Simon added.

Senior libero Morgan Rank, an all-area performer headed to Alabama, returns for Metea Valley along with senior setters Regan Holmer (Grand Canyon beach volleyball recruit) and Emma Bludgen. The Mustangs have a talented new group of hitters including Kira Hutson (6-4, junior verbally committed to University of Florida), Annabelle Troy, Jada Wlodarczyk and Camille Morrison.

For Waubonsie Valley, senior Leah Tubbs returns in the middle along with OH Ashlyn Hickey and libero Ava Orkfritz. Coach Kari Galen also expects big things out of junior setter Katie Godo and sophomore OH Gabby Tlustochowski.

With powerful 6-0 senior Gwen Wolkow swinging away on the outside, Downers Grove North will look to continue on its recent success that included an 11-1 WSC Silver championship last season. Wolkow recorded 139 kills, 13 aces and 78 digs last spring.

"We are in a great position to reload after having a great spring season with several 2- and 3-year players at their position," coach Mark Wasik said. "Gwen Wolkow is one of the top outside hitters in the state, both offensively and defensively. Our setting will be strong, and we add two lefties to the lineup."

Setter Sandi Brindl, OH Grace Beacom and MB Isa Samsa return for Downers North, with newcomers libero MacKenzie Mastalarz and MB Emma Barton ready to make an impact.

For Downers Grove South, former Cal State Fullerton player Madisen Babich is a first-year head coach who will lean on returners OH Kayden Dempsey, RS Paige Antiporek and libero Aleesa Andresen. Mustangs newcomers OH Emily Petring, S/RS Jenna Majchrzak and MB Taylor Pertile all will be counted on for big contributions.

New head coach Brad Cardott takes over a Glenbard East squad that went 10-4 in the spring, including an 8-1 first-place showing in the Upstate Eight.

Outside hitters Madison Manning and Keri Hrouda are back, along with setter Ruby Campuzano, DS Jenna Tumlos and 6-foot middle Genevieve Walton.

"We graduated many seniors and will be relatively young, [yet] we have a strong core returning with our roster being made up of six returners and seven new to the varsity level," Cardott said. "We will be a well-balanced and versatile team both offensively and defensively."

New coach Danny Piwowarczyk takes over a York program that went 8-4 and graduated 10 players.

Back for the Dukes are senior OHs Ella Lawton and Ella Contant. Sophomore Emelyn Stettin, a 5-10, Setter/OPP, and 6-3 junior middle Kiera Concannon will help fill the void from the wholesale departures.

"With the 16-year head coach retiring, two assistant coaches stepping down, and 10 seniors who graduated there are a lot of fresh faces and new opportunities in this program," Piwowarczyk said. "The players are very excited to grasp this opportunity and prove what they can do with a chance to play."

Glenbard North will kick off the new season with eight returning players, four of whom started for the Panthers last season. Returning junior MH Hannah Elrod and OH Camila Rodriguez will lead the offense. Seniors Paige Krull, Iter Rendento, and Caroline Marin will bring leadership and experience to the court.

Glenbard South returns nine players, including five major contributors from a team that won 7 of its last 8 matches last season after an 0-8 start. The Raiders knocked off conference champion Glenbard East in the finale.

Top returners include senior OHs Coco Stachnik and Brittany Miller, sophomore MB Sofia Alcala, and senior setter Helen Maurer. Coach Chad Grant expects plenty from newcomer Megan Daca, a 5-11 sophomore MB.

St. Francis went 11-7 in the spring including five 3-set losses. The Spartans are led by middle hitters Nora Los and Jessica Schmidt, with sophomores Anna Paquette and Shay McMillen the top threats on the outside.

"We are excited to get the season started. Our middles bring experience to our lineup and will be a threat in our offense, and our pins are young and competitive. We expect to compete for the conference title and look forward to watching this group improve throughout the year," said St. Francis coach Lisa Ston, who also has 6-2 freshman Addy Horner setting and playing right side.

Lake Park returns 5 starters -- senior outside Shannon Kelly, juniors Cailin Shannon, Michela Barbanente and Kateryna Hlyut, and sophomore Jillian Gibbons. Hlyut will set for the Lancers.

"After a sectional championship in 2019 and no opportunity for last year's seniors to make another run, we will be looking to defend our sectional championship and hopefully make a state run in class 2A," said Timothy Christian coach Scott Piersma, whose squad went 9-4 in the Metro Suburban Blue last spring.

Leading the way will be returners libero Abi Alonzo, OPP Amanda Leibrock, and middle Sadie Orange. Abby VanderWal, a 6-2 freshman will add punch to the outside attack.

After going 17-0 in the spring without dropping a single set, IC Catholic Prep returns outside force Claire Wagner, a 5-11 senior who had 83 kills in 13 matches for the MSC Blue champs. Also back are L/OH Ava Falduto, S/OPP Lucy Russ and MB/OH Allie Geige.

Newcomers DS Morgan Cantwell, DS Alysa Lawton, MB Jenny Fromelt, MB Cassie Levy and OPP Ashley Zwolinski give the Knights plenty of options.

"We are returning one of the top area attackers who has played as a varsity OH since her freshman year in Claire Wagner," ICCP coach Nancy Kerrigan said. "We also have three freshman varsity starters from last year's squad and will move Lucy Russ into the setting position with the departure of Sophie Hurt. We expect to compete for a conference title again this year."

West Chicago went 8-4 in the spring including a 6-3 mark in the UEC.

MBs Brianna Gromos and Brianna Pechman return and sophomore Ava Lowell is back on the outside. Also back for the Wildcats are setter Trinity Nelson and RS Lyniah Lee.

"We have a large number of varsity returners and they are hungry to have a successful season and want to establish themselves as one of the top teams in the area," coach Pam Pater said.

Wheaton North looks to bounce back from a 2-win spring and the Falcons have a slew of experienced players coming off a strong summer.

Leading the way will be returning OHs Audrey Brcka and Allie Whitmer, MH Caitlin Johnson, libero Ella Brend, setterPaige Syswerda, and middles Marilyn Boyce and Isabel Phillips. Coach Justin Hineman also expects big things from junior OH Mia Benson.

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