Fenton volleyball coach Heather Snyder leaped at the opportunity to assume the reins of the boys program at the Bensenville school. A former volleyball player at Fenton, she had been coaching soccer at her alma mater when the position opened up this year.
What her teams lacks in size, club experience and reputation, it more than makes up for it in determination and hard work. Last week at Elk Grove, the Bison continued to show signs of improvement under their first-year coach.
"They played hard," Snyder said. "They definitely had fun. They returned some hits that we wouldn't have returned any other game. I see it moving into a more positive direction. We struggled with some things at the beginning of the season, but now we're coming together and hopefully we'll just build on this and improve from here on out."
Snyder's efforts this season have been hampered by defections and lack of size. Carlos Campos is the only starter over 6-foot.
"We are very short," Snyder said. "Our middle hitter is the second shortest on the team. Throughout people leaving the team, we've rotated some people through this position. It's definitely the position we need to fill."
Snyder said she has received a lot of support from the other coaches on the staff.
"I feel like the coaching staff at every level is very strong," she said. "We're on the same page. We just got to get the kids there."
Wheaton Warrenville South's 6-foot-6 middle Matt Nussbaum returned to the lineup last weekend at the Mustang invite hosted by Downers Grove South after missing the team's first 17 matches with a pair of patellar tendon injuries.
The three-year varsity veteran admitted to being a little rusty, but liked what he saw from his view on the bench prior to his return.
"I can see that we are definitely working better as a team than we have in the past," he said. "Despite me being out, it doesn't affect us. People make up for it in different positions. Everyone plays their role and does their job well.
"It's been tough (getting acclimated to playing again)," Nussbaum added. "But it's definitely getting easier and easier. I'm getting my confidence back. Slowly, but it's coming."
Veteran outside hitter Tim Zyburt praised Jared Chandler, who filled Nussbaum's shoes until he returned last weekend.
"There was no difference," he said. "Jared came in with big shoes to fill with Nussbaum being a two-year starter, and he did exactly that. We had to help Matt out a little bit. He's a little rusty. But it's fun to see him out there. I think he had a lot of fun, too."
The biggest surprise of last weekend's Mustang Invite might have been Glenbrook South. The Titans finished third after losing to Glenbard East in the semifinals, and look ready to make a strong second-half run after veteran setter Brian Brennan opted not to return this season.
"We played some defense (last weekend)," coach Tim Monahan said. (Glenbard East coach Maier) Marci just complimented us on our defense. That's probably the first time anyone said, 'Nice defense.' Unfortunately, we had some seams in our defense today and that's what they were hitting."
Glenbrook South struggled early this season while trying to solve its setting issues, but the emergence of junior Matt Kaiser has helped the Titans turn their fortunes around.
"We've been having a nice run," Monahan said. "The guys have stepped up and matured as a team. We're starting to play well. Matt is running a real nice offense. He's been doing that for a couple weeks now. It's starting to look good for us."
In addition to avenging an earlier loss to Maine South last week, the Titans also knocked off Central Suburban League rival New Trier. Leading the Titans have been veterans Will Kozloski, Drew Maki, Charley Tisch, 6-8 Piotr Rafalo and middle Troy Farsakian.
"It was nice to get them (Maine South)," Monahan said. "We got New Trier earlier in the week. It's looking good for us. We got to keep playing tough and don't let this (loss to Glenbard East) get us down. Finishing third here is our best showing in nine years."
Naperville North was the last team off the court at last weekend's Mustang Invite hosted by Downers Grove South. The Huskies went three sets to defeat Maine South (18-25, 25-21, 25-22) in the fifth-place semifinal, the downed New Trier in the fifth-place match (21-25, 25-21, 26-24).
Naperville North outside hitter Spencer Sauter almost seemed disappointed the tournament was over.
"The thing about Naperville North volleyball...we just like to play," the 6-foot-7 Penn State recruit said. "We like to go three sets just so we can play more volleyball. We just like to go out there and play."
Sauter's lighthearted sarcasm notwithstanding, the Huskies enjoyed one of their best weekends of the season and moved to 14-7 after some ups and downs earlier this season.
"This was a huge weekend for us," Sauter said. "We've been progressing throughout the season. Our goal was this week was to go 7-0. We were being very optimistic, But we were able to go 6-1 this week. That's a huge step for us. I definitely think we're hitting our stride.
"We're starting to spread the ball around a lot more which is nice, our middles doing a great job putting the balls away, our blocking has been there, and our middles have been closing," he added. "By the end of the season, we'll be ready for another Naperville North playoff run."
For those who might have forgotten, Naperville North reached the finals of the state tournament in 2011 after knocking off favored WW South in a sectional final.
Lake Park got some bad news last week. Leading hitter Michal Ragan dislocated the pinky finger on his right hand. He sat out last weekend's Mustang Invite, although there is hope he could return in a couple of weeks.
"Originally, the prognosis was surgery with a pin and he'd be done for the season," coach Tim Murphy said. "Now there is more hope. They reset the finger and they think it's going to be able to stay without the pin. Their thinking is three weeks."
The Lancers, who finished 2-3, were also without 6-5 senior middle Andrew Hochstadt, who was on a college visit.
"He was on a visit to MIT," Murphy said. "I said yeah, it's MIT. So we went with a sophomore middle. It was a makeshift lineup. We did OK, we just didn't finish."
Another player noticeable by his presence on the bench was Willowbrook's 6-6 hitter Jacob Schmiegelt. Schmiegelt was struck in the face playing volleyball in gym class and was held out of the tournament for precautionary reasons.
The Warriors (8-9) went 1-4 at the Mustang Invite with their star on the sidelines.