By Phil Brozynski
With the opening day of practice just a week away, it's time to look at the downstate challengers in girls volleyball.
You have to go back to 1991 to find a big-school state volleyball champion from downstate Illinois. Seventeen years ago, Charles Rodman's Belleville West team won its second straight Class 2A title by defeating Crystal Lake South 15-6, 15-1.
Since that time, downstate Illinois teams have only had a sniff of the big-school title hardware, finishing second to Wheaton St. Francis in 2006 (Rockton Hononegah) and to Downers Grove South in 1999 (Belleville Althoff).
However, the Illinois High School Association's decision to expand to four classes in volleyball will make it easier for big downstate schools to get back into title contention, particularly in 3A where Belleville Althoff is generally considered the overwhelming favorite in 2008.
The Crusaders were beaten by eventual state champion Crystal Lake Central in the 2007 quarterfinals 25-17, 25-11, but Althoff coach Kathy Wuller returns three of her top players from that team and they don't figure to stumble again.
The Crusaders will be powered by 5-11 junior Carly Thomas (250 kills), who set for the USA Junior National team, 6-1 senior middle Carly Marcum (219 kills, 144 blocks) and 6-1 senior outside Tess Schoen (152 kills).
Bloomington and Normal U-High should also contend in 3A. Kasey Heckelman, defensive specialist Allison Kirk and junior Lauren Seyller are back for Bloomington coach Joe Sanders, while U-High boasts setter/outside Taylor Bruns and middle Carly Schumacher.
In Class 4A, Normal Community reached the sectional finals before losing to Collinsville, which was subsequently dumped by eventual champion Naperville Central in the supersectional at Pekin.
Normal Community will reload for another run behind seniors Mackenzie Allen, outside hitter Jenny Menendez, outside hitter Taylor Coughlin, junior setter Jackie Gerig, and sophomores Lindsey Freed and Mary Trimpe
Graduation claimed the top three hitters from 2A champion Breese Central, which could open the door for such downstate teams as Carlinville and Newton.
In 1A, last year's third-place finisher Albion (Edwards County) welcomes back leading hitter Jessica Knackmuhs (Evansville), but will have to get past Stewardson-Strasburg..