Reprinted with permission (and edited for style).
Three head coaches in five years. A fluctuating roster of players. Swinging between one-win seasons and a conference championship.
After waves of inconsistency within the program, the Montini Catholic boys’ volleyball team is finding its roots and finally cultivating a name for itself in the area.
Following the departure of Dan Vashinko during the summer of 2016, former baseball and basketball coach Brian Opoka was asked to step in and steady a program that had seen its fair share of changes over the years, including shifts at the helm.
“Goal No. 1 was to kind of continue to build bodies in the program (the team rostered just eight players as recently as 2014) and get active student-athletes that wanted to be participants, and you do that by walking the halls and talking about the team being competitive and having fun,” said Opoka, who became the program’s fifth coach in the last seven years.
“Then, it comes down to being flexible with activities, club and AAU teams or other spring activities,” he said.
That flexibility -- plus his hallway presence -- helped the 26-player team to both consistency and a Chicago Catholic League Green Division title - a first for the school - in his initial season with the team last spring.
“I knew the pieces were in place, which made it easier,” Opoka said. “I knew with the conference we play in, we can build something. You always want to let those seniors leave their legacy, and they had a challenge ahead of them, but it was a (doable) task. Knowing that they could become very successful was certainly an (attainable) goal.
“I didn’t realize we’d win the conference as quickly as we did, but I did know that those kids would have made us competitive right off the bat,” the coach added.
This season, the Broncos have maintained that edge and displayed it on the court.
After opening with a tough two-set loss at East Suburban Catholic Conference foe Benet Academy on March 20, they bounced back with a thrilling three-set victory against visiting Waubonsie Valley two nights later.
The Broncos built on that win with a 3-2 record and a third-place finish at the Maine East Blue Demon Invitational on March 23, where they handed the hosts and eventual champions their only loss of the tournament.
They defeated a young Nazareth Academy team and toppled a tough Zion-Benton group, but they also challenged formidable Niles West and perennial athletic powerhouse St. Viator. At the end, four-year varsity starters Drew Vogrin, a setter, and Charlie Woods, a rightside hitter, took home all-tournament honors.
“I think we took teams by surprise, which certainly we’ll take where we can get it, but then success builds on success,” Opoka said of his Broncos, who had only put together one win in that tournament in the previous two years.
“When you find you can compete with those teams, you start to build your own confidence,” he added. “We were hitting on all cylinders and playing a caliber of volleyball I had only seen when I would scout or watch other courts.
“We had a great start at Maine East, but I do believe that we’re going to keep that Vernon Hills tournament (May 11-12) circled for the future.”
Before Montini could look to that showcase, it first needed to continue its momentum in the regular season. Following Maine East, the Broncos posted a two-game win in Elgin against St. Edward on April 3.
The next week, they opened Chicago Catholic League, aware that they were going to be the ones with a target on their backs. Instead of folding, the team secured wins in all three matches, toppling DePaul Prep, St. Joseph and up-and-coming Marmion Academy.
These teams meet again soon to determine the conference title.
“There’s not much I need to do to get the boys excited about the conference,” Opoka said. “On the other hand, instead of being the hunters, we’re becoming the hunted, and we saw the absolute A-plus game against Marmion on Thursday (April 12), where they came with every intention possible to win a game against us.
“As we enter the second round of the conference, we need to play at a high level,” the coach said.
“We need to remember that nothing is given; everything is earned. We have to earn every single conference victory, and once we complete the schedule - the two-and-a-half-week grind that it is - we have to refocus and be sure that our lineup and our chemistry is as tight as possible for the non-conference portion of our schedule.
“That should get us ready for Vernon Hills, and in turn, we’ll be ready for the state tournament,” Opoka said.
Success in the IHSA tournament has eluded Montini during its young existence, but the last few seasons has seen the team take important steps toward achieving that goal someday. Whether or not it's a milestone that can be reached this spring remains to be seen.
“It’s a hard question to answer with our loaded sectional,” Opoka said. “From my account, I'm assuming we’re going to have a very good opponent right out of the gate, followed by another and a third and another before we put a plaque in the school. For us to get to that next level, it’s going to reflect how we finish off the season with growth.
“I think the last year we got to a point where we maximized what we had,” he added. This year, I don’t know what our ceiling is. I think the players and their practice habits and preparation habits will dictate that. I think that we’re going to know what kind of character we have when we’re playing a number of those games down the stretch.”
One of the cornerstones of Opoka’s philosophy is his players’ character - the presence of both mind and body at practices and games. While that might seem obvious to the casual observer, it was an area that he had to tighten up once he took over.
“We paid some dues at the beginning of (last) season with some early discipline that was necessary to get us forward, and that parlayed us to some victories,” he said. “That consistency then drew everybody coming to practice, and then, that made our practices more competitive and better suited for teaching and learning and improving, which then led us to competing in games.
“When you’ve established the foundation, then, it was that much easier to come into this season being established and not trying to re-work the entire process,” Opoka added.
Everything Montini boys’ volleyball has accomplished so far has been part of a much bigger picture.
“We're not steadily staying the same,” Opoka said. “We’re improving one step at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time, one match at a time, one point at a time.”