By Pat Brozynski

Here's looking at you, Illinois, from the nation's top volleyball guru

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Curious about how Illinois looks from a different perspective? editor John Tawa has released its annual list of the top 100 high school teams in the country. Heading the list this year is (St. Louis) St. Joseph's Academy. just the second team in the past eight years outside of California or Kentucky to earn the No. 1 ranking.

Nine teams from Illinois are among his top 100, including No. 7-ranked (Lisle) Benet. Here are's look at the top teams in the country from Illinois:

7. Benet Academy (Lisle, Illinois)
Last year's record: 35-5; 2009 final ranking: 132

Benet reached the state 4A final in 2008 only to lose in an upset to St. Charles East. The Redwings were "rebuilding" in 2009 and went 35-5. This may be the year they put it all together. While others are touting defending 4A champion Cary-Grove or runner up Lyons Township as the teams to beat in 2010, we like Benet best. Brad Baker's team is huge and hungry. They can go 6-3, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0, 5-11 and 5-11 in the front row. Heck even Grace Giradot, who started at DS last year, is 5-10! The team is deep and loaded with Division I talent, as five have already made college commitments. The key players are juniors Meghan Haggerty (Wisconsin) and Jenna Jendryk (Virginia Tech), both of whom played for Sports Performance's AAU national championship 18 Elite team. Both are big leapers with heavy arms. OH Lara Ontko (Mississippi) also is back and a strong all-around player, and 6-3 Gabby Pethokoukis, a recent Villanova commitment, is a very long, athletic middle who is a defensive difference maker at the net. OH Alyson Farm (George Mason), setter Kaitlyn King (Maryland) and 6-2 MB McKenzie Kuhn are three other key pieces to the puzzle for Benet, and I haven't even mentioned Haggerty's kid sister, 6-1 freshman Madeline Haggerty, who absolutely crushes the ball on the outside, or Kathleen Severyn, who has the ability to play libero at the Division I level.

22. Lyons Township (La Grange, Illinois)
Last year's record: 37-5; 2009 final ranking: 84

Twenty years after winning its last state title, Lyons found itself in the Illinois 4A championship match last season only to fall to Cary-Grove. The Lions graduated four starters, including both middles, but return their three best players and have a talented cast waiting to fill in for another championship run. 6-2 senior OH Jocelyn Birks, who averaged four kills a set last year to lead the team, will be a mainstay on the left along with junior OH Laura Williams, who also can set. Alexis Viliunas, an acclaimed 6-0 junior, will set and hit. Two other Division I bound seniors, 5-11 setter Erin Juley and 6-1 MB Kelsey Keeve, should also start, along with back row specialists Megan Miller and Kaley Babich and senior middle Julia Watkins.

25. Cary-Grove (Cary, Illinois)
Last year's record: 36-4; 2009 final ranking: 68

The Trojans won the state 4A title in 2009. Setter and emotional leader Abbey Heredia has graduated, as have Kayla Klinger and Colleen Hargrove, who combined for more than 350 kills and 200 blocks a year ago, but coach Patty Langanis thinks this team could be just as good. Three seniors, OH Kelly Lamberti, Setter Colleen Smith and libero Sam Mainzer are back. Lamberti led the team with almost 400 kills last season, Smith is a future Division I setter who led the vaunted Sky High 17 Black team and Mainzer had triple figure digs. MB Ashley Rosch also returns. The 5-11 junior led the team in blocks and was third in kills a year ago and improved greatly during the club season on Sky High's amazing 16 Black team. OH Melanie Jereb was an impact player on that team and will be a terrific addition to the starting lineup. Look for two tall youngsters, 6-1 Sheila Wilhelmi and 6-3 Mallory Wilczynski, also to make big contributions to the team as it goes for the repeat.

31. Mater Dei (Breese, Illinois)
Last year's record: 35-7; 2009 final ranking: 90

The Knights reached the Class 3A championship match last year, but longtime coach Fred Rakers was denied his sixth title by Joliet Catholic. JCA should be much weaker this year, but Mater Dei, which started virtually an all-underclass lineup, should be even stronger. The Knights return one of the best outside hitters in the Class of 2012, 5-9 Brooke Schulte, who amassed more than 300 kills and a team-high 85 aces last year to go along with nearly 100 blocks. Also back are senior OH Kaley Boeckmann, who was second on the team in kills and third in blocks as a junior; both setters, senior Nicole Strieker and junior Samantha Bedard, senior OH Alison Mueller, who was third on the team in kills; and Abbey Winter, a 6-0 junior middle who led the team in blocks. If coach Rakers finds suitable replacements for Mater Dei's two top defenders, they should Breese (pun intended) to the 3A title.

33. St. Charles East (St. Charles, Illinois)
Last year's record: 32-7; 2009 final ranking: 134

The Saints won state in Class 4A in 2008, then fell to eventual champion Cary-Grove in the Supersectionals last year despite suffering through an injury-riddled campaign. Two key players from those teams are off seeking Division I glory, but coach Jennie Kull welcomes back five starters and three key reserves. All but fantastic libero Maisey Mulvey are listed at 5-10 or taller. Key returnees include six rotation standout Meghan Niski, a junior outside hitter; big blocking middle Nicole Lambert, tall senior middle Olivia Desormey, senior OH Sam Szarmach and sophomore setter Erienne Barry, one of the best young setters in the nation.

44. Marist (Chicago, Illinois)
Last year's record: 28-9; 2009 final ranking: 270

The Redhawks graduated two, including Molly Murphy, from last year's solid team. Six starters return for coach Natalie Holder, including Molly Murphy. What? Last year, the Chicago school had two Molly Murphys on it. The powerful outside, who signed with Indiana State, has graduated, but the senior DS, one of two Division I defenders, is back for a Marist team that could contend for an Illinoi 4A title. Murphy, who will play at Western Illinois, is joined on the defense by libero Carks Niedospial, the Northwestern-bound digging machine who coach Holder said is the best back row player in school history. There should be plenty of perfect passes this fall to junior setter Ashley Holder, who runs a quick offense and was an all-area performer. 6-4 middle Lauren Zielinski, a blocking fiend, 6-1 senior middle Katie Krasowski (Eastern Michigan) and 5-11 senior OH Courtney Collins are returning front court players for Marist, which should get solid contributions as well from 6-1 middle Rachel Dalton and 5-9 OH Mallory Sallis.

69. St. Francis (Wheaton, Illinois)
Last year's record: 36-3; 2009 final ranking: 30

The Spartans were the second best team in Illinois in 2009, but because of the playoff structure, they bowed out of the running before getting Downstate, courtesy of two-time reigning 3A champion Joliet Catholic. Though St. Francis suffered heavy graduation losses - notably OH Kelsey Robinson (Tennessee) and setter Kristen Kelsay (Michigan State), Peg Kopec-coached teams always reload and always contend. Leading the 2010 edition will be 6-1 senior OH Meg Vonderhaar, a Notre Dame recruit and one of the top 100 seniors in the country. Gina Madonia, a senior who was libero for SPVB 18 Elite, will be the team leader in the back row, while athletic junior Daiva Wise returns to the middle. Impact newcomers include senior setter Kelly Reinke, whose injured ACL prevented her from contributing last year; and MB Halley Gable, a strong, athletic player with great potential. This team is not deep, making health a priority in 2010.

70. Althoff Catholic (Belleville, Illinois)
Last year's record: 29-6; 2009 final ranking: 195

The Carly Thomas era is over at Althoff. The Youth National Team setter has graduated to Southeast Missouri State, but the Crusaders return a great core group that includes three Division I recruits. Hillary Keltner, a smooth dealing senior setter headed to Air Force, will lead the team in a 5-1 offense this fall. Dynamic Me'Ashah Nicholson, a senior middle, brings great athleticism to the floor, while Missy Muckensturm, a senior outside, is a smart hitter with good ball control. Hana Michael, who can hit or play defense, is the team's best passer, while Sara Birk, a 5-8 junior, is a great athlete likely to don the libero jersey. Madeline Schoen, a 5-11 junior lefty RS who puts up a big block; Abby Allard, a 5-6 junior back row player, and Lizzie Kurowski, a 5-9 junior middle, are other players that have second-year coach Lisa Orlet thinking the Crusaders will be one of the best teams this fall in the St. Louis area.

83. Hinsdale Central (Hinsdale, Illinois)
Last year's record: 33-6; 2009 final ranking: 133

Hinsdale Central reached the sectional finals a year ago before running into Benet. It was the Red Devils' most successful season to date. Head coach Sheralynn Kellough is hoping for one just like it or better in 2009, but will have to fill a void at setter, given the graduation of Nikki DelZenero. Sophomore Meghan McDowell, who stands 6-2 and also plays on the right, may be the solution there. In other areas, Central is more than solid. Soph 79 middle Ally Davis is back after leading the team in kills and blocks. Senior OH Natalia Skiba and senior libero Jamie Netisingha also return. Both are among the state's best at their positions. Coach Kellough also returns two impact defenders, senior Susie Golden and junior Elle VanKeirsbilck, plus senior middle Katarina Milojevic.

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This page contains a single entry by Back Row published on September 2, 2010 2:53 PM.

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