By Phil Brozynski
Meghan Niski, who will be a sophomore at St. Charles (Illinois) East High School this fall, accomplished a rare feat for somebody so young. She won a state volleyball title and a national championship all before she reached the tender young age of 16.
Toss in an all-tournament selection and an MVP award at the Junior Volleyball Directors Association National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky last month, and Niski has had herself quite a year.
"A state title and a national championship in the same year...how do you top that?" Club Fusion (Marengo) 15 Black coach Mike Bui said.
Even Niski does not know what she can do for an encore.
"Even though it's been a few weeks since winning the national championship, it's still hard to believe right now," Niski said. "Nobody expected us to win. We pulled an upset."
Nobody expected Niski to be part of an Illinois state title, either. Sharing that achievement with her older sister, Caroline, who also plays for Fusion and will be a high school senior this fall, made that accomplishment just as special.as her achievements on the national stage.
"Winning a state title, especially with my sister and my whole family there...that was special," Niski said.
It was her sister who got Niski started in volleyball.
"She started ahead of me," Niski said. "She really got me into the sport.
"Since we went to a private school (St. Patrick Catholic School in St. Charles) we were able to start playing volleyball in fifth grade. She wanted to try a new sport, so she started playing first. Then when I got to fifth grade, I started playing, too."
Niski began her career as a setter alongside high school teammate and sophomore-to-be Maisey Mulvey, who also started for St. Charles East as a freshman at libero and was credited with more than 300 digs for the Saints
"Then we switched to outside hitter in seventh and eight grade," Niski said.
That move proved to be fortuitous. Niski contributed more than 215 kills, 30 blocks and 35 aces for St. Charles East last fall, then helped her Fusion team do what few thought was possible.
If you had to step away to the restroom during the second game of any of Club Fusion 15 Black's matches at the JVDA national championships, you never had to worry that you were going to miss the finish. After all, chances were very good there WAS going to be a third game.
Fusion 15 Black played 11 matches - and one tiebreaker to 25 points - in Louisville. Nine of those matches went to three games. It was fortunate they weren't playing best of five. They still might be playing.
"The girls were an emotional wreck," Bui said. "But I give the girls a lot of credit. We played very good competition the first day. All four teams in our pool made it into the gold. The teams that beat us were very, very solid."
Fusion lost twice on Day One in Louisville, falling to Louisiana VB 15 Danny and Team Z 15 Orange, before salvaging the day with a victory over WWBA 15 Mizuno.
Things did not get any easier on Day Two. Fusion defeated SPVB 15 Elite (17-25, 26-24, 15-13)and MI Elite 3rd Degree (20-25, 25-10, 15-13) , but lost to Nebraska Juniors 15-1 (25-2, 18-25, 15-13), forcing a one-game playoff with the Cornhuskers.
Fusion defeated Nebraska Juniors 26-24 to advance against Milwaukee Sting 15 Gold (an 18-25, 25-21, 15-11 loss) and KIVA 15 Red, where it won just its third match of the tournament in straight games, 25-21, 25-20.
"We barely got out of pool play on the second day," Bui said. "Things got tougher and tougher after that."
But Niski, who struggled through the team's first several matches, finally found her groove.
"That was the funny thing," Bui said. "She really struggled until we got into bracket play. Serving, hitting, passing, she just couldn't do anything very well. She wasn't herself.
"But in the gold bracket, the switch turned on," he added.
"It wasn't that I was playing badly," Niski said. "I just knew I could play better. I knew I had to step it up. I knew every game could be our last game of the year and that I had to put everything into it."
Fusion 17 Black dodged more bullets than Bugs Bunny being chased by Elmer Fudd.
Four times, Fusion's matches ended with at 15-13 in the third game. They trailed 13-9 in the third game of the quarterfinals against Maunalani 3rd Degree 15 Black and again in the third game against Sky High 15 Black in the semifinals.
"I was down for a little bit (against Maunalani), but then we came back and scored 6 straight points," Niski said. "Then when we were down in the semifinals and came back, that gave us momentum. That helped us a lot."
Fusion defeated favored Munciana 19-25, 25-22, 15-10 in the championship game, finishing atop the 15's bracket despite a 7-4 record.
While Niski was struggling early, her Fusion teammates were able to pick up the slack.
"Julia Conard (West Chicago) played phenomenally all week," Bui said. "She carried us to the finals. (Kim) Juriga and Jillian Stolzenburg did a phenomal job in the middle blocking-wise, and Katie (Aiyello) and Annie (Kunes) were lights out in the back row."
Outside Emma Hussey and middle Brigitte Foltz also contributed in spots. Meanwhile, Setter Erienne Barry, who will be a freshman at St. Charles East and a teammate of Niski's in the fall, showed why she is a player to watch in the future.
"She just completed eighth grade," Bui said. "This was her first year setting at any level. But she did a great job running our offense."
Niski said that chemistry had a lot to do with Fusion's ability to overcome the adversity it faced throughout the tournament.
"We're all real close, we're all real good friends," Niski said. "We work so well together."
Niski and her high school teammates recently wrapped up two weeks of summer camp. She will get about a 10-day break to enjoy what's left of her summer before the first official day of high school practice begins in mid-August.
The rapidly approaching high school season reminds Niski how little time she has left with her sister before Caroline heads off to college in the fall of 2010.
"She's always been my go-to person," the younger Niski said. "We're together a lot of the time. We play volleyball together at the same club so I see her all the time. I'm really going to be sad when she leaves next year."
Niski will be spending her abbreviated vacation time with her sister and parents touring some college campuses in Maryland, Virginia and points east.
"My sister is going on some college visits to the East Coast and I'm going along,' Niski said. "It will be good. I don't know where I want to go, so I will get to look and some schools and get a feeling for what I want."
The trip won't be all business, however.
"I was talking with my dad and he said we may do a little tourism," she said. "So I'll get a little break."
Then Niski can go home and start planning how she can top her freshman year.