Members of the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area Girls Volleyball Team lived up to their plaudits during a remarkable and memorable 2011 season.
NORMAL - Perhaps the reason St. Francis came out firing in Saturday's third-place 3A match against Marian Catholic, a 25-20, 25-11 win, had more to do with some of the things the Spartans do between games that have nothing at all to do with volleyball.
"We do a lot of traditional things at St. Francis that some people might look at and say, 'Are you playing volleyball?' because we do a lot of other stuff," Kopec said. "We have a little tradition downstate. We choose words and talking about different things and what those words mean to each of us.
"Words like 'commitment,'" she said. "A person will talk about what that means to them. 'Trust.' We'll choose 20 different words. It puts the season in perspective, hearing from every team member what some of the different words mean to them."
"Happiness" might be the word that best describes Kopec and the Spartans following Saturday's third-place match.
"I am very happy for this team that they can go out as the winners they really are," Kopec said.
That's "Winners," with a capital "W."
Some observers said that the 2011 season may have been Cary-Grove's coach Patty Langanis' best coaching job, considering what she lost from the state championship team in 2009 and state runner-up team in 2010.
But Langanis said that Cary-Grove's success was a team effort by not only coaches, but former players and teammates .
"A lot of people have made comments, but you have kids who have been trained by me, by Ray (assistant coach Rugebregt), and also by Abbey Heredia, by Colleen Smith, by Kelly Lamberti, they have been trained by the best teammates," Langanis said.
"We know what to do every day in practice to try to get them ready, and they believe I us and we believe in them, and right now we have an incredible culture of volleyball and positive behavior at Cary-Grove, so I don't know (about the individual praise)," she added.
Langanis gave the example of junior outside Alex Larsen, who was a junior varsity player early in the year and became a starter at midseason when a senior decided to quit the team at the Asics tournament.
"She was a benchwarmer, and when our starting rightside quit, we were like, 'OK, you (Larsen) have to start,'" Langanis said. "Look at her tonight, every time she touched the ball. These players played out of their minds to get here and they believed it."
Langanis said her players will be able to look back in a couple of weeks at what they accomplished and the hurt will dissipate.
"This is a true team," she said. "Cary-Grove always prides itself that all 16 players are a part of this team and are equal. We needed every single person to get here. We didn't have a (Kelly) Lamberti to go to every single time, and a (Colleen) Smith, a Big Ten setter, to run the offense.
"Looking at Benet, at their size and their speed, and us out there on that court, for us to battle like we did, I'm really proud of them," Langanis added. "I think that with reflection in a couple of weeks, realizing what we accomplished, the sting will go away."
Saturday's state championship may have taken a little heat off Benet and coach Brad Baker and it certainly helped to lessen the pain of the Redwings' 2008 title match loss, at least for awhile.
"I don't know why, but it seems like there's been more pressure on us to win a state title than anybody else in the state," Baker said. "Maybe because we've had so much success over the last five years? But it feels great. I feel great for these kids because of how hard they worked.
"I don't just say that," he added. "We were running doubles at the end of the year because these girls want this."
Baker credited some advice he got from other coaches for helping the Redwings win their first state volleyball title.
"I got some great advice from some other coaches and it helped this year," he said. "The best advice was that we needed to pass forever, and I think we put a new meaning to that. If you ask our group, we just passed for hours and hours, and in the third game (against Cary-Grove) that was the difference.
"We knew we had big middles and we knew we had rightsides, but our ability to get those kids the ball in clutch situations was the difference," Baker said.
Baker added that he wasn't surprised Meghan Haggerty, who rarely string more than a few good serves together during the regular season, was able to put 12 consecutive balls in play during the pivotal third-game run.
"In the national championship for club, she went on a long serving run," he said. "She gets in that zone. She's got a great serve, it moves a lot, it's a hard floater. She was just hitting the same spot, it's her favorite spot, and they were just having trouble with it.
"But our front row was doing a great job, we were getting digs," he added. "It's not like she was getting aces. They were getting swings on the ball. You have to give credit to everybody out there, but you also have to give credit to Meghan. She was playing some defense out there, too."
Benet loses 10 seniors from the 2011 team -Meghan Haggerty, Jenna Jendryk, Gabby Pethokoukis, Nora Young, Mackenzie Kuhn, Mary Kate Whelan, Shannon O'Brien, Annie Ferlmann, Emily Thron and Sarah Jane Pavlik - but don't look for the Redwings to avoid the spotlight next season.
"We lose 10 seniors and we won't be favored to win it all next year," Baker said. "We'll be extremely young. But our goal is going to be the same to start the year. We're going to put the same pressure on ourselves that we do every year.
"We want to be back here in this same match and we're going to work to make sure we're there," he added. "We're going to be young next year, there's no doubt, but we're still going to be good."
Benet will rebuild around a solid core of experienced youngsters in sophomore outside hitter Maddie Haggerty, sophomore middle Brittany Pavich, junior setter Hannah Kaminsky, junior libero Sheila Doyle and junior defensive specialist Brittany Kmieciak.
Nobody seems to enjoy themselves more at the state tournament than St. Charles East coach Jenni Kull.
Saturday's win over Marist in the third-place game was just icing on the cake.
"It's always fun to win, always fun to win,' she said. "I saw our team do things (Saturday) that we haven't done in awhile. Our offense... they (Marist) are a great team. I think we battled. Our defense was better than I've ever seen it. I'm so happy, so happy.
"I'm so proud of these girls," she added. "This is a dream to come here. But we didn't know if we'd make it. To finish third and to end our season with a win is the greatest feeling in the world. I'm so proud of these eight seniors. They battled and they got it done."
St. Charles East loses Meghan Niski, Kathleen Dailey, Maisey Mulvey, Kadie Brooks, Sarah Dugan, Allison Manely, Stephanie Camper and Nichole Lambert to graduation.
Kull, who won state titles in 2001 and 2008, put the state tournament into perspective.
"This is a bonus, this is the bonus," she said. "The girls seized the moment and they took advantage of it. They did everything they could this season. I think that we had a great time."
Statistic of the weekend:
SIxteen appearances. Forty-four matches. Only once (a fourth-place finish in 1995) has a Peg Kopec-coached St. Francis team lost two consecutive matches at the state tournament. Overall, Kopec's state final tournament record is 35-9.
Quote of the weekend:
Cary-Grove coach Patty Langanis, talking about her team's 35-33, 25-19 victory over Marist in Friday's 4A semifinals.
"Winning that first game says something about the girls," Langanis said. "The experience of being in Redbird Arena before, the great joys we've had and the horrible pains we've suffered. The girls are not governed by fear like some teams I've had before.
"Other teams might be afraid to miss a serve or afraid to take that full swing," she added. "These guys have been through it all and they survived everything. They know at the end of the game they're going to survive. In a match like that, that experience came out and they were not going to give up."
Five-foot-11 sophomore Sarah Thompson is an oddity among her Dakota teammates. Other than a brief foray into track as a freshman, Thompson focuses exclusively on volleyball.
"Í did track last year, but I choked in the sectional otherwise I would have gone downstate in the high jump," she said. "Now, I'm just sticking with volleyball. No more track. I'm a volleyball player."
But how does one get good in volleyball playing in the northernmost corner of the state at least 40 miles from the nearest population center?
"You have to play club all year round," Thompson said.
For the past few years, Thompson has made the long trek to Freeport to play with Club Fusion. This winter, she will be moving to the Fusion club in Rockford. Her club team won a tournament at the Wisconsin Dells last year. But that accomplishment pales to playing for a state championship.
"OMG," she said. "This has been our goal all year long. We kept checking off the goals we have on a list in (coach Shannon Williams') office. It just seems unreal.
"We always want it more (than the other team)," she added. "Sometimes skill maybe won't be in our favor. We played Winnebago (a 21-25, 28-26, 30-28 victory early in the season), but we put our whole heart on the court. That's why we won that game."
Thompson, who led Dakota (41-1) to the Class 1A state championship with 13 kills (hitting .423) and eight digs against Mt. Pulaski Saturday at Redbird Arena, hopes to earn a scholarship to play volleyball in college. But financial assistance probably will not drive her decision.
"Hopefully I'll get a scholarship," she said. "We'll see. I don't even know if I'd play because I got a scholarship. I'd play because I love it. I LOVE this sport."
Mt. Pulaski is no stranger to the state tournament. The Lady Toppers have made 14 appearances under veteran coach Donna Dulle, winning two state titles (1989, 2007) and finishing second seven times (1988, 1996, 2002-2004, 2009 and 2011).
But few expected the Toppers to reach the state finals in 2011, especially without a single senior on the roster.
"We had a couple of kids who played in the past," Dulle said. "A couple played with us this summer. I think they realized they weren't going to play because these kids were a little bit stronger than they were. I don't beg kids to play."
Among the Mt. Pulaski youngsters who made the seniors see the handwriting on the wall were 5-7 sophomore Cady Lowery and 5-7 junior Allie Hickey.
"Cady played last year for us and we had her playing outside before she hurt her wrist," Dulle said. "Allie came on and played with some fire. Cady is quiet. Cade might be a little stronger player, but Allie brings that enthusiasm. Cady has been playing backrow and it's working, so I won't change it now."
Mt. Pulaski, which went 1-4 at the Autumnfest tournament hosted by Glenbard East and 0-5 at the Belleville East Metro Classic, had the worst record (25-15) of any of the four semifinalists coming into the 1A tournament. But don't expect Dulle to lighten the schedule anytime soon.
"Every year, I ask myself if I'm doing the right thing," she said. "But every year, the postseason seems to go pretty good. I think we had a turning point in the middle of the season at Belleville East. Although we went 0-5, we played every team tough.
"Then we played Pleasant Plains," Dulle said. "We were behind most of the match, but we won 27-25 in the third game. I think that was the turning point confidence-wise for the kids. After that, they knew they could do it."
Look for Dakota and Mt. Pulaski to meet a few more times at Redbird Arena during the next few years. In addition to Thompson, Dakota also started 5-11 sophomore middle hitter Cora Fiene, 5-7 freshman outside hitter Jaycee Cleaver (three kills, nine digs against Mt. Pulaski), and 5-10 freshman outside hitter Eden Meier.
Chicago Christian had everyone scratching their heads and scrambling for the record books after it dismantled Breese Central 25-23, 25-12 in Friday's Class 2A semifinal.
The most common question was, "How did this team lose 18 times?"
Simple arithmetic. Six loses came at the hands of teams who reached the 3A semifinals (St. Francis, Marian Central and Marian Catholic), six more were to Class 4A regional champions (York, Lyons, Mother McAuley, Lockport and Plainfield Central), and 3A sectional finalist Payton, and four more were against Class 4A teams.
But don't expect Chicago Christian coach James Garcia to soften his schedule. Not after three consecutive trips to the Class 2A championship match.
"I think realistically as a team returning your second year, third year, you need to harness that experience," Garcia said. "When you come out and you're nervous, is doesn't matter who you are. I think that's why we do what we do with our schedule.
"During the season, we want to work on getting better, and the only way we're going to get better is to play against tougher competition," he added. "You have to use that experience to calm those nerves and not focus on the pressure. You want to come out here and have fun and just play."
Garcia said that the state tournament is a time when he can actually watch his team and enjoy the moment.
"I harp on the girls all season, I come down on them, I get frustrated," he said. "This is my time to relax. I don't want to get up and yell or do anything because this is what they've worked so hard for. This is what I've put them through, to get here. Now it's their time to shine."
Could Chicago Christian have played a more flawless semifinal against Breese Central, the team that it needed three games to overcome in last year's championship match?
'I don't think so," Garcia said. "I knew they were going to be a tough team. I didn't think that second game was going to go the way it did. The momentum was on our side and the girls tasted blood in the water. They executed very well...our blocking, our passing, we were able to execute on our sets and they started making too many mistakes."
Two of the players who shone brightest included one who did not even see the floor in 2010.
"We have a lot young girls on the team, and I thought (sophomore Workman) Emily our setter did a great job spreading out the offense," Garcia said. "But I was more surprised with Jess Krygsheld, our sophomore outside hitter, who at times has struggled throughout the season.
"This is a big stage for her and her first year being here and to play the way she did, I thought she did a great job," he added.
Krygsheld had five kills while hitting .417 against Breese Central, and Workman had 24 assists and three kills.
Graduation losses by the four semifinalists could change the landscape of the 2A tournament in 2012. The most likely pair to return downstate are Decatur St. Teresa and Chicago Christian, although Timothy Christian could stand in the way of a Knights' fourth straight downstate trip.
St. Teresa returns leading attacker Marie Less, a 5-9 sophomore, 5-9 junior Amber Grubbs and 5-7 junior do-it-all Courtney Huck. The Knights will welcome back setter Annika Evenhouse, 5-10 junior middle Emily Lindemulder, 5-9 sophomore outside Jessica Krygsheld and 5-8 sophomore Emily Workman.
Looking for a preseason top 10 for 2012?
It might look something like this: 1. Marist; 2. Joliet Catholic; 3. Sandburg; 4. Benet; 5. Barrington; 6. Glenbard West; 7. Mother McAuley; 8. St. Francis; 9. St. Ignatius; and 10. Naperville Central.
Wild cards could include DeLaSalle, Libertyville, Marian Catholic, Lyons and Stevenson.
Some of the top players will include West Aurora's Lauren Carlini, Hinsdale South's Jessica Brezwyn, Marist's Mallory Salis and Kelly Marcinek, Joliet Catholic's Morgan Reardon, McAuley's Gabrielle Ennis and Courtney Joyce; Sandburg's Dakota Hampton; and Barrington's Peyton Lang and Julia Thompson.
Also, St. Francis' McKenna Kelsay, Marian Central's Meredith Patterson and Tara Blake, Marian Catholic's Amber Clay, Benet's Maddie Haggerty and Brittany Pavich, St. Charles East's Erienne Barry and Glenbard West's Caleigh Ryan.
Never on Saturday. Benet capped a perfect season of Saturdays by defeating Cary-Grove in the Class 4A championship game.