Imagine how much better Wheaton Warrenville South would have been with Eric Luhrsen.
Luhrsen, the 6-foot-6 senior outside hitter who led the Tigers to within a few points of a fourth consecutive state title last year, sat out the Tigers' season opener Wednesday against visiting Downers Grove South.
He was barely missed.
After squandering a 20-17 lead in Game 2, the Luhrsen-less Tigers bounced back to bounce Downers Grove South 25-17. 23-25, 25-18 in their 2011 season opener in Wheaton. Their depth is one reason WW South begins the season ranked No. 1 by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Luhrsen, who was part of two state championship teams and had more than 380 kills last year during WW South's run to second place, believes this could be the best Tiger team he has been a part of yet.
"On paper, this could be," he said. "But we have to continue to work to get there. We can't take anything for granted. We have a tough schedule, that should help. And every one of our hitters can put a ball down harder than the best player on a lot of teams.
"I'm optimistic," he added.
With Luhrsen in street clothes nursing tendinitis in his right knee (he had surgery on his left knee after helping the Tigers win a state championship in football last fall), the Tigers unveiled some of the new faces coach Bill Schreier hopes will lead the Tigers to a seventh state title.
Among the new faces is 6-6 sophomore Michal Stefanski, a foreign exchange student from Poland who blistered Downers South for 13 kills and two aces, and 6-6 junior Thomas Jaeschke, who had three kills all of last year but had 12 kills and a block Wednesday.
"Jaeschke can run that backrow attack as fast as Sean Rooney," Schreier said. "He actually had to slow down on one because the ball hung up a little bit. With him, Luhrsen and Stefanski, we have three guys who can hit out of the back row."
Six-foot-7 junior Matt Callaway had just 32 kills in 2010. He had five kills and four blocks against Downers South. And Dave Priest finally wore the same color jersey as his teammates - he was the libero last year - and dished out 33 assists and six aces.
Six-foot-5 junior Matt Nussbaum (143 kills, 72 blocks in 2010) is also back, as is 6-6 junior Tim Zyburt, who was an integral part of WW South's stellar basketball team.
Players aside, WW South also has some intangibles on its side in its quest for another state title, like tradition and a long memory.
"I was disappointed with how we ended Game 2," Schreier said. "I would have thought that after the way last year ended they would not allow that to occur again. But I like the way they responded in Game 3, that's for sure."
WW South built leads of 10-6, 16-11 and 23-15 in Game 3 behind four aces from Priest, four kills from Jaeschke and eight kills from Stefanski.
"We still have a target on our back, but it's not quite as big," Luhrsen said. "This year is different because we didn't win (the state title) last year. We have some new faces, and everybody is hungrier than last year."