Lauren Carlini, a pre-season candidate for Player of the Year, hopes to lead West Aurora to its best-finish ever and a berth in the Class 4A semifinals.
Rachel Hartmann's debut as head coach of her alma mater provided more than a few anxious moments, but Rosary managed to prevail Tuesday in Huntley, 31-29, 25-22, over the Red Raiders.
"We made a lot of errors the first set, but it was great to see the team remain calm and find a way to win," Hartmann said. "Huntley came out very strong in the second set. They served a lot tougher and made us work to earn points.
"But our rhythm came back in our offense, which took some of the pressure off the passers," she added.
Kate Stefanski led Rosary with nine kills and three blocks. Marissa Prochaska added five blocks and Brianna Flagg and Erin Bowe each had five kills. Katie Baki had 14 digs and Jo Gallagher recorded 15 assists.
Neuqua Valley finished 21-17 during coach Kelly Simon's 12th year at the reins, but graduation took a heavy toll on the team - including twins Kaitlynn and Leighanne Novak who head to Western Illinois -- and only four players are back from last year's senior-laden team.
The Wildcats will feature senior Taylor McKeown and junior Kayln Hugdahl on the outside, and senior Brooke Antenen setting and playing the rightside. Seniors Allie Clarke and Jenna Marquez also saw playing time in 2011.
Newcomers include setters Kacie Florek and Sydney Powers, attackers Meg Borgehsi, Audrey Kuhn, Stephanie Vas and junior Brena Dunckel, and defensive specialist Jessica Wang.
"We may appear to be in the midst of a rebuilding year, but the cohesiveness and overall team dynamic of this group in the summer and preseason work has proven that they will be a team to be reckoned with," Simon said.
Can Lincoln-Way East duplicate last year's record-threatening season?
The Griffins finished with 30 wins last season - the second-most in school history - but graduated three seniors off that team including 5-foot-11 outside hitter Lauren Behrens (St. Peter's College).
Nevertheless, coach Linda Vivona has high hopes for her 2012 squad. Back are 5-6 libero Dana Van Dyck, 5-9 outside hitter Marissa DeGroot and 5-6 outside hitter Sara Buchbach. Van Dyck and Buchback had a very successful summer ion the beach.
Newcomers includes 5-7 junior setter Taylor Nirchi (647 assists, 47 aces in 2011), 5-10 middle Kayla Currier (126 kills in 2011) and 5-10 rightside Jessica Lindsey. A player to watch for Lincoln-Way East is 6-0 freshman middle blocker Sarah Dobrich.
Marci Maier begins her 14th season at Glenbard East still looking for the next Amanda Peterson (Ohio State). Meghan Hanewall, a junior outside hitter who had 163 kills, 72 blocks, 43 digs and 11 aces for last year's 9-26 team, might be the next best thing.
Other top players for the Rams are seniors Brittany Peters, Alex Symonds, Megan Cotterill, Kaely Cantua and Hannah Walsh.
Former Rosary standout Rachel Hartman returns as head coach at her alma mater just in time to savor the move to Class 4A -- thanks to the IHSA's new enrollment initiative.
But it shouldn't be too painful for Hartman thanks to outside hitter Brianna Flagg, middle hitter Marissa Prochaska, rightside Kate Stefanski, libero Katie Baki, outside hitter Erin Bowe and junior setter Josephine Gallagher.
Lemont setter Megan Litoborski may have trouble finding a teammate to double-date to prom with this spring. Her teammates include junior middle hitter Kelly Ferguson and a trio of sophomores - outside hitter Ali Lund and defensive specialists Haley Sullivan and Tess Cannon.
Chicago Christian's run of state appearances likely took a hit when the IHSA kicked the Palos Heights' school up to Class 3A.
"Though we already play a tough conference schedule and in the past few years it has proven to really help us succeed at the state finals, this season will be a test to see how we handle a tougher playoff schedule," coach James Garcia said.
"We are a whole lot younger than we've ever been, but we are still hungry, and the girls have shown quite a bit of grit and determination over the summer," he added.
Back from last year's 25-19 Class 2A state runner-up are 5-10 middle hitter Emily Lindemulder (Quincy), who had 274 kills as a junior, 5-11 junior setter Emily Workman (1,025 assists in 2011), and 5-11 junior outside hitter Jessica Krygsheld (204 kills, 215 digs).
Timothy Christian coach Lindsey Van Scheppen's team is in the same boat as Chicago Christian and Immaculate Conception after getting kicked up to Class 3A.
"I think the 3A field is only going to become more competitive since so many of our matchups in postseason play last year are also moving up," she said. "Our conference is made up of all 3A schools, so I'm glad we have that competition to prepare us for the postseason.
"We look forward to the challenge, but know that it will be even tougher to make a post season run this year," Van Scheppen added, "I'm already looking forward to seeing the regional matchups for this year."
Downers Grove North graduated a pair of Division I players in Jessica Tulacka (Bradley) and Taylor Kasal (University of Wisconsin-Green Bay), but does return one of the top recruits from the Class of 2014, Katherine Mahlke.
The 6-1 lefthander has visited Northwestern, Notre Dame and Michigan and has been getting interest from such as Purdue, Missouri, U. of Miami, Xavier, Butler and Miami of Ohio.
Also back is libero Carolyn Nojiri, who has been flying under the radar because she eschewed club volleyball to play softball during the summer.
"Carolyn wants to play volleyball in college," Downers North coach Mark Wasik said. "She will be one of the state's best liberos."
"I suspect we will struggle at times as we will be young, but we look forward to continual improvement and competitiveness," he added.
After knocking off powerful Benet in the sectional finals two years ago, Hinsdale South entered the 2011 season ranked No. 2 in the Chicago area. However, the Hornets were never able to recapture the magic of that 2011 season and were stung by Whitney Young in the regional finals, 24-26, 25-14, 25-20.
But South coach Lisa Martinez likes what she has seen out of her current group, which features 5-9 outside hitter Jessica Brezwyn.
"This could be our strongest year ever based on experience and talent," Martinez said. "We are not huge and losing Melissa Nava stings a bit, but three of the seniors have been with me since they were freshman and three more since they were sophomores.
"They are hungry, especially after the letdown last year," she added.
Other players to watch for Hinsdale South this fall are 5-8 setter Sharon Anderson, 5-11 outside hitter Rachel Kent, 5-6 leftside/setter Emily Mihalkinan and 5-11 junior middle hitter Jackie Adelphia.
"I cannot wait for the season to start and come out hungry ready to really make splash." Martinez said. "Slow and steady, we will work to win the race at the end. We want the big show this year."
On the other side of Route 83, Kelly Moran takes over for Sheralynn Kellough at Hinsdale Central and inherits one of the top setters around in 6-3 Meghan McDowell, a University of Virginia recruit.
McDowell spent much of last season in a walking boot after doctors discovered two complete ligament tears and one smaller tear in her right foot. But she had an outstanding spring and summer for Sports Performance 17 Mizuno and gives Moran reason for optimism.
One of McDowell's favorite targets this fall figures to be Dominique Millette, a 6-3 middle hitter who played club for New Wave 17 Tornado. Other players to watch are libero Rachel Lenderman and sophomore outside hitter Lauren Fuller.
Jacobs beat Fox Valley conference rivals Crystal Lake South, Prairie Ridge, Huntley and Crystal Lake Central last year. Now, the Eagles want to make some noise in the postseason, too.
Top returnees for Jacobs from last year's 24-12 team are 5-10 outside hitter Alyssa Ehrhardt (370 kills , 72 aces in 2011), 5-7 outside hitter Maris Smith (169 kills, 225 digs) and 5-7 setter Taylor Lauder (671 assists, 26 kills).
Other players to watch include 5-5 sophomore libero Kassie Kasper, 5-9 middle/opposite Rachel Arceneaux, Senior, 6-0 freshman middle Katie Mahoney, 5-8 middle/opposite Alyssia Dugo, 6-0 sophomore opposite Jenna Bilgrien and 5-3 junior setter Mackenzie Traub.
Another Fox Valley team that figures to be much improved this fall is Prairie Ridge, which finished 18-19 last year team but lost only two starters to graduation.
Looking to return the Wolves to the top of the FVC are 5-11 setter/opposite Mackenzi Humm, 5-10 setter/outside Caitlin Brauneis, 5-8 junior outside/setter Taylor Otto, libero Paige Dacanay, and 5-6 junior defensive specialist Nikki Kirchberg.
Also expected to see a lot of playing time are 5-10 junior outside hitter Kennedy McNeil, 5-10 sophomore middle hitter Ali Witt and 6-3 junior middle blocker Maddie Drain.
Plainfield Central graduated seven seniors from a 20-15 team that reached the sectional finals before losing to eventual state champion Benet.
But Central does return two outstanding players in sophomore Elizabeth Hyland (110 kills, 25 aces, 61 digs in 2011) and outside hitter Shannon Hagen (177 kills, 67 blocks as a junior).
"Our program had a lot to be proud of last year and we are hoping for some new leaders to emerge with our young talent," coach Jessica Clark said.
Palatine coach Daniel Gavin is looking to improve upon last year's 19-17 record behind 6-3 senior outside hitter Taylor Fricano, a Dayton recruit, and 5-7 libero Casey Dolen (uncommitted).
Fricano had 167 kills and 29 blocks as a junior while Dolen, a three-year varsity starter, had 422 digs, 39 aces and 397 serve receptions at a 2.12 clip.
"We have experience on the pins and defensively in the backcourt and should have a good amount of size," Gavin said. "We had a good summer, finishing third in the Sky High summer league at Prairie Stone behind Stevenson and Hersey.
"The Mid-Suburban League is always extremely competitive, but I feel like with the mix we have we should be in the thick of things," he added.
The Metea Valley Mustangs may not always be physically ready to face teams like St. Charles East. St. Charles North, Batavia, Geneva, Waubonsie Valley and Neuqua Valley in the Upstate Eight Conference. But they should always be mentally ready.
In addition to being the team's first-year coach, Janine Wange is also the school's psychologist.
Metea lost Sun-Times All-Area choice Jessica Boddy to graduation, so Wange will turn to 5-5 senior libero Alyssa Ensminger, 5-9 sophomore outside hitter Lexie Lobdell and 5-9 junior setter Ellie Petersen.
How are things in Lake Forest? Let's just say there are a lot of new faces in the team photo.
"We have no returning starters or contributors from last year's 33-5 team," coach Ray Werner said, who will look to 5-9 junior outside hitter Katie Huguenard to pick up some of the slack left behind by the graduation of Sun-Times All-Area selection Mary Streidl.
Life without four-year starter Julia Conard (Illinois) begins for West Chicago coach Kristi Hasty. But not all is lost. Hasty does welcome back sisters Kayla (libero) and Mary Kate (Junior setter/outside hitter) Katarzynski.
Kayla, a 5-4 senior, was a member of Sky High 17 Red team that won the AAU National Championship in the club division.
"Kayla will be a leader on our team this year," Hasty said. "Mary Kate is a fierce competitor. We are also hoping for big things from (6-3 outside hitter) Andrea Skipor."
St. Charles East may have trouble following up a 35-7 season that ended with a third-place finish in Class 4A after graduating eight seniors from last year's team, including seven who are playing in college.
But Jennie Kull's Saints have a way of beating the odds (remember the 2008 Class 4A state championship game against Benet?) and 2012 may be no different.
Back to bolster East's hopes are outside hitter and Memphis recruit Nicole Woods, setter Erienne Barry (Western Michigan) and uncommitted outside hitter Caitlyn Ballard.
Former Naperville Central star Meghan Bray is among several former Chicago-area standouts playing their college ball at Oakland (Mich.) University, which was picked third in the 2012 preseason balloting by Summit League coaches.
As a junior, Bray was an All-Summit League First Team selection and the first Oakland player to be named to the Summit League All-Tournament Team. She set a school record in the Division I era with 389 kills and was second on the team with 358 digs.
Other Chicago-area players on the Oakland roster are freshman defensive specialist Mary Grassano (St. Ignatius), sophomore outside Taylor Humm (Prairie Ridge), senior outside Amber Miehlke (Lake Zurich) and junior setter Alissa Valentine (Naperville North).