Huntley, St. Charles East off to strong starts
Huntley girls volleyball coach Karen Naymola has had some pretty good teams in the past, including last year's edition, which lost in the Class 4A supersectional.
But with four collegiate Division I recruits, this year's squad might eclipse them all.
That group consists of seniors Ally Panzloff (Brown commit), Avary DeBlieck (Miami), Maggie Duyos (Austin Peay) and junior Morgan Jones (Indiana). Then add to that mix sophomore Georgia Watson, who is already getting looks from big-time colleges.
That's a lot and they've been flexing their collective muscles all season, including Saturday at the 2022 ASICS Challenge at Mother McAuley, which was a sort of who's who of in- and out-of-state volleyball. The Red Raiders finished eighth, winning their pool Friday and then taking Assumption (Ky.), the ninth-ranked team in the nation, to three sets in a loss Saturday.
Add it all up and Huntley is 14-3 with the lion's share of the season complete.
Coaching a group like that is a bit of a departure for Naymola. In the past, she had teams with a lot of talent, but may have been missing one key component. Not this year, which she admits creates pressure.
"We've done a lot of mental strength training," she said. "It's really something we will continue to do every year. They've found different ways to practice and compete against each other."
But at the end of the day, while many of these kids played, or even started, on varsity as freshmen, they are still kids who count on each other for their success.
"We're a very unselfish team," said Duyos, who recently recorded her 1,000th assist. "We play for each other and we play together as a family. We try to stick together."
Added DeBlieck: "I know my club team has a lot of Division I commits. For a high school team, it's great to have that much talent. It's great that it ended up this way."
It just works. Panzloff, an outside hitter, came in as a "quiet freshman" and nowadays is a captain and a "vocal, go-to leader on the court," Naymola said. DeBlieck, a middle hitter, is a cheerleader, while setter Duyos "is a great leader and just so smart." Jones, another outside hitter, is the calming influence on the court.
It will take time to find out what the future holds, but Panzloff said the Red Raiders are enjoying life right now.
"Obviously, winning is fun," she said, "but it's our in-practice kind of culture."
Jones said, "We push each other and we play closer and closer as a team."
Kull enjoying last go-round:
St. Charles East coach Jennie Kull is retiring after this season after 36 years as a volleyball coach, the last 24 with the Saints, a tenure that included two state championships.
Like Naymola, she has plenty of talent to work with, including senior libero Lia Schneider, who will play collegiately at South Florida; Natalee Rush, a 6-foot-1 middle hitter who will play at Texas A&M-Richardson; and Kate Goodreau, an outside hitter who hasn't yet committed.
But the big thing about the Saints is their versatility, which could lead to a happy ending for Kull.
"We've changed our lineup several times and they have adjusted," said Kull, who is currently running a 5-1 formation. "We had somebody that had to miss a tournament, and we switched the lineup at that point. We have a lineup where we can adjust to what another team will put against us. At the high school level, it's been awhile since I've had a team like that."
The individual talent Kull can call upon is impressive. Schneider, she said, "is everywhere on the court. She's a quiet leader and she just gets the job done. She makes some plays where people are like, Are you kidding me?" Goodreau, on the other hand is "one of our go-tos. She hits the ball hard."
The uniting factor, though, is the fact that, like Huntley, this group is having a good time. That will likely spell doom for a number good teams come the IHSA playoffs.
"I think the thing I continue to go back to with this group is that they are enjoying it," Kull said. "I think sometimes that's more dangerous for a team that is close together, because they are willing to do what it takes."
Goodreau agreed, saying, "We just seriously have so much fun in everything we do; we just enjoy each other's company. We dance all the time. If there is music on, we're dancing."
Youngsters pace Timothy Christian:
While Timothy Christian has plenty of upperclass talent that allowed the Trojans to race out to a 20-4 start, like senior middle hitter Sadie Orange, there are a fair amount of youngsters that are making names for themselves.
Take Abby Vanderwal, for example. The 6-foot-3 sophomore "is a tough person to plan for," according to coach Scott Piersma, and was voted a captain this season.
Then there is freshman outside hitter/right side Bella Potempa, who pairs up well with Vanderwal to give the Trojans better matchups.
Are those underclassmen, who both play club for First Alliance, fazed by the pressure? Hardly.
"Being the youngest on the team, I have all these kids to look up to, and that's really comforting," Potempa said. "The seniors have been an awesome help."
"I think we want to keep playing to the level we're playing at, and keep getting better as the season goes on," Vanderwal added. "I definitely feel like we have a chance to go far."