St. Ignatius may not be a household word in Illinois volleyball yet, but that could all change by the time November rolls around.
The Wolfpack finished 29-10 in 2010 and reached the sectional finals before losing to eventual state champion Lyons 25-13, 25-17. Every starter is back from that team, including superstar setter Sophia Dodd.
Dodd, a 5-foot-11 junior and Wake Forest recruit, was named the MVP of the 16 Open division at the AAU Junior National Tournament in Orlando, Fla. in late June after leading her 1st Alliance 16 Silver team to the national title.
Last year, she had 169 kills, 197 digs and 28 aces for the Wolfpack.
"Sophia has met all expectations so far and is one of the best setters in the country as a junior," St. Ignatius coach Erik Eastman said. "This will be her first season running a 5-1 offense, and with the entire passing and defensive core returning, things look solid in 2011."
Dodd won't be the entire story on the near west side, however. She will be joined by veterans Courtney Somerville, a 6-foot senior middle, 5-11 junior outside hitter Camille Evans and 5-8 senior libero Mary Grassano.
Evans had 182 kills and 24 aces last year while Grassano compiled 491 digs and 84 aces. The Wolfpack will also get a boost from Rachel Lock, who sat out last year with injury, and incoming 6-1 freshman rightside Kristen Somerville.
"This should be the best team we have ever had here at St. Ignatius and my expectations are very high," Eastman said. "We have revamped the schedule to make it tougher, and I feel this group deserves a longer look."
And don't think GCAC rival Mother McAuley hasn't noticed.
The Mighty Macs, who finished 31-8 in 2010 after losing to Marist in the sectional finals, also return the bulk of their team including six seniors who are beginning their third season at the varsity level.
Leading the Macs is 5-8 senior Ryann Arundel, a lefthanded setter/rightside who has been with coach Jen DeJarld since she was a sophomore. Also back are 5-8 junior outside Sydney McPhillips, 5-9 senior outside Lizzie Scanlon and 6-foot senior middle Lauren Grady.
While McAuley will have plenty of firepower, the Macs' bread-and-butter will still be their trademark tenacious defense. Bridget Powell, a 5-5 senior and three-year starter at libero, is among the best in the nation. Fellow third-year defender Jackie Aird is cat-quick in the backrow.
"I think this team brings more experience and focus than last year's team," DeJarld said. "They will be more balanced and have better ball control, but most of all we will have experience and senior leadership.
"This group is extremely focused and determined to contend for state, and I believe we have the work ethic, leadership and competitiveness to do so," the coach said.
Neuqua Valley should be one of the better teams in the west suburbs this season thanks to four returning starters including 6-1 senior and DePaul recruit Callie Heubener. Heubener was a member of the Sports Performance 17 Mizuno team that finished ninth at AAU nationals.
"Aside from being a tremendous jumper and athlete, Callie is still developing and has not even begun to meet her potential," Neuqua Valley coach Kelly Simon said. "She will be a standout for us this season."
Heubener and the Wildcats will also showcase the talents of Leighanne Novak, a 5-11 Western Illinois recruit and Heubener's club teammate; 5-11 Kaitlynn Novak, who played for powerful SPVB 18 Red; and 5-10 junior Taylor McKeown.