Here are some club teams that should be among Illinois' best during the 2018 season:
1. Sports Performance 18 Elite
Six-foot-4 outside hitter Taylor Landfair, one of the top sophomores in the country who broke onto the 18s roster following her freshman year, returns as do 6-3 middle hitter Emmy Barnhorst and 6-3 middle/opposite hitter Sammi LaBolle from the team that lost to Asics Munciana 29-27, 22-25, 15-10 in the AAU Junior National Championships 18 Open title match last summer. SPVB 18 Elite will once again be among the top teams in the country and will look to return to the final with help from setters Alli VanEekeren and McKenna Slavik, liberos/defensive specialists Elizabeth LaBue and Grace Kloss, and outside hitters Hanna Lesniak, Kya Greer and Natalie Mitchem. Slavik and Mitchem led SPVB 16 Elite to a ninth-place finish at AAUs in 2017.
2. Illini Elite 18 Cardinal
Illini Elite overcame a third-round loss to Mizuno Northern Lights 17-1 to win the AAU Junior National Championships 17 Open division last year behind Auburn recruit Mica Allison. The 6-foot-1 Allison led St. Thomas More to the IHSA Class 2A state title this fall with a mesmerizing exhibition of setting and hitting skills. Allison and SPVB 18 Mizuno’s Taylor Landfair were the only Illinois girls named to the USA Girls' Youth National Team Training Roster last summer. Meanwhile, 6-3 Grace Cleveland creates match-up problems with her physical presence in the middle. The supporting cast should include Normal Community outside hitter Makenna Barnhart. Stepping up an age bracket should not be a problem for the Bloomington-based club.
3. Michio 18 National
Michio 18 National is loaded with Division I talent, led by 2016 Gatorade Player of the Year and Notre Dame recruit Charley Niego of Mother McAuley and Central Michigan-bound Savannah Thompson of 2017 Class 4A state champion Marist. Also headed to Division I schools in the fall are outside hitter Jill Bennet (Cornell), a 5-10 outside hitter from St. Ignatius, Lyons Township’s 6-1 outside hitter Emma Fink (Providence) and 6-2 middle hitter Nicolette Jones (Duquesne), and Nazareth Academy’s Bridget Holly (Northeastern) and Fenwick’s 6-foot Margaret Planek (University of Pennsylvania).
4. Uno Girls 18 Elite
Uno Girls 17 Elite finished third in the Great Lakes Power League Super Open division last year, and 18 Elite figures to be a major force in tournaments this spring and summer if most of the players return for their final club season. Uno 17 Elite featured Illprepvb.com Player of the Year Allison Papesh is graduating early and heading to Dayton, but libero Taylor Baranski, 6-foot outside hitter Rocky Perinar, 6-2 rightside hitter Holly Bonde, and middle hitters 5-10 Olivia Klank and 6-1 Samantha Hermann of Minooka, 6-0 setter/rightside JoDee Kovanda of Lockport and 5-9 setter/rightside Sarah Nahas of Joliet Catholic are back. Newcomers are defensive specialist Jada Houston and 5-10 outside hitter Lauren Hatch of Marian Catholic, both juniors.
5. High Performance G 18 Elite
The Greater St. Louis Area Volleyball Club will field eight teams composed primarily of Illinois girls, but the cream of the crop is the 18 Elite team featuring some of the best talent in southwestern Illinois including 6-foot setter Louis Comerford, who guided Belleville Althoff to the Illinois Class 3A state title. Also on hand are 5-11 outside hitter Rachel Pranger of Edwardsville, 5-9 outside hitter Kaylee Hanger from Belleville West and 5-9 outside hitter Elise Smith of O’Fallon. Holding down the middle hitter positions are Taylor Litteken, a 6-footer from Francis Howell High School (Mo.), and Nisha Quarles of Belleville West. Also on board are Drew Stokes, a 5-10 setter from Murphysboro, Class of 2019 outside hitter Mia Valleroy from Columbia and libero Megan Woll of Edwardsville.
Other teams to watch: Sky High, Club Fusion, 1st Alliance, Rolling Thunder.
1. 1st Alliance 17 Silver
1st Alliance 16 Silver was the best of class in Illinois last year, and four players off the team that finished 22nd in the 16 Open division at the 2017 USAV Girls' Junior National Championships are back to lead 17 Silver – 6-1 outside hitter Lucy Dumford (Downers Grove South), outside hitter Sarah Murczek (Richards), 6-3 setter Mary Kate Lopez (Loyola) and 5-8 setter Katie Mather (Marist). Newcomers include defensive specialists Jenna Curbis (Plainfield South) and Sarah Paluch (Kennedy), middle blockers Anya Korbut (Whitney Young) and Nailah Landon (IC Catholic Prep), rightside Kamryn Turner and outside hitter McKenzie Moorman (Fenwick).
2. Michio 17 National
A collection of some of the south side’s top talent including Marian Catholic outside hitter Temitayo Thomas-Ailara and Mother McAuley setter Nancy Kane should make Michio 17 National one of the best in its division in Illinois. Outside hitters Erica Staunton, a 6-footer from Sandburg, and Benet’s 5-10 Caitlin McKee will solidify the front row, while Northwestern recruit Charlotte Cronister of Latin and 5-6 defensive specialist Jaya Hall (Marian Catholic) will anchor the back row.
3. Sky High 17 Black
Sky High 16 Black went 6-6 at the AAU Junior National Championships last summer with a roster featuring 6-2 middle blocker and Bradley recruit Kennedy Collins of Zion-Benton, Grayslake Central’s 6-foot middle hitter Cassidy Beshel, 5-10 setter Muff Kennedy of Westosha (Wis.), 5-5 libero Alyssa Eske of Rufus King (Wis.), Huntley’s 5-10 outside hitter Julia Johnson and 5-4 setter/libero Sarah Zayas, Barrington’s 6-2 outside hitter Peyton Tilly and 6-foot middle/opposite Bailey Madrzyk, Marian Central’s 5-7 outside Isabelle Nick and McHenry West’s 5-4 defensive specialist Isidora Visnjevac. If most of these players return, this could be a solid group for Sky High.
4. 1st Alliance 17 Black
How strong is 1st Alliance 17 Black? As 16s, they finished 12th in Premier division at AAUs. Leading 1st Alliance’s “No. 2” team are outside hitters Margaret Mahlke (Downers Grove North), Nikki Marsh (Stagg) and Heidi Westra (Timothy Christian), rightsides 5-10 Samantha Ward (St. Francis) and 6-foot Allison Hamaker (Glenbard East), setter Devyn Petrowski (Mother McAuley), middle blockers 6-1 Mattie McCabe (Marist) and 5-11 Zora Barnett (Oak Park-River Forest), and defensive specialist Alexandra Traciak (Hammond Bishop Noll).
Other teams to watch: Club Fusion, Illini Elite, Uno.
1. Sports Performance 16 Elite
Five players are back from the team that finished fifth in the 15 Open division at AAUs last summer, including 6-1 outside hitter Cate Long (Aurora Christian), 6-3 middle hitter Gretchen Ketelhut (Plainfield North), 5-5 libero Hattie Monson (Benet), 6-2 middle hitter Linnea Dale (Naperville North) and 6-foot setter Melissa Walden (Waubonsie Valley). Walden is also a threat as a hitter after leading Waubonsie Valley to a pair of upsets of Joliet Catholic in the fall, while Monson is one of the best at her position anywhere. Monson, Walden & Co. will get help from 6-1 outside hitter Gabriella Croll (Waubonsie Valley), 5-5 defensive specialist Lauren Conroy (Neuqua Valley), 5-10 defensive specialist Lilly Smith (West Chicago) and 6-foot outside hitter Maddie Meyers (Glenbard North).
2. Michio 16 National
Marist’s Clemson recruit setter/outside hitter Camryn Hannah and Lemont setter Amy Schwem are two of seven players back from the Michio 15 National team that placed 11th at the AAU Junior National Championships last year in the Open division. Also back from that group are Marist’s Paige Cormier, 5-10 outside hitter Maddie Arundel, Avery Jedry and Maired Boyle and Homewood-Flossmoor’s Miara Bolden. Joining that septet for the 2018 campaign are Marian Catholic’s Payton Thomas, Munster (Ind.) product Laila Wallace, Savana Chacon from Crown Point, Ind., and Providence’s Izabela Gorys, who comes over from Lions 15-1.
3. 1st Alliance 16 Silver
Defensive whiz Rachel Krasowski (Sandburg), 6-2 middle blocker Leilani Dodson (Nazareth), outside hitter Natalie Chizzo (Oak Park-River Forest) and 5-11 setter Elizabeth Sandt (Nazareth) were part of the Lions 15-1 team that finished 10th at the USAV Girls' Junior National Championships in Minneapolis last summer. They should get a boost from outside hitter Kati Kaburov (Hersey), who was the Player of the Year in the Mid-Suburban League’s East Division last fall. Other team members include 5-8 defensive specialist/outside hitter Alexis Warfield (Mother McAuley), middle blocker Rebecca Oldendorf (Lockport), 5-10 outside hitter Kaitlyn Hurka (Hinsdale South) and 5-9 setter Grace Tully (Stevenson).
Other teams to watch: Sky High, Illini Elite.
1. Sports Performance 15 Elite
All Sports Performance 14 Elite did last year was roll through 11 matches unbeaten to win the AAU Girls' Junior National Volleyball Championship, beating runner-up Asics KIVA 14 Red twice in straight sets. Can this team do it again as 15s? Five players are back from that team, including 6-1 setter Zayna Meyer (Wheaton Warrenville South), 6-foot outside hitter Brooklyn Borum (Sterling), 5-11 middle hitter Dominique Browder (Plainfield East), 6-foot middle hitter Ariel Amaya (Plainfield North) and 5-5 libero Alexis Rodriguez (Sterling). Newcomers include 5-8 outside hitter Alea Rivetna (Naperville North), 6-1 outside hitter Emily Wilson (Joliet Catholic), 5-10 outside hitter Jillian Elsouso (Marist) and 5-6 defensive specialist Rory Haddock (Rosary).
2. Lions 15-1
Sometimes you forget that they were only freshmen when they competed against some of the top talent in Illinois on the high school level. But you take Benet’s 5-10 outside hitter Kyla Kenney and 6-1 setter Rachel Muisenga, who played outside for the Redwings this fall, and Madi Malone, who led Newark to the Class 1A semifinals in 2017, and you have the beginnings of a strong national contender. Other teams members include defensive specialist Francesca Bertucci (DeLaSalle), defensive specialist/setter Kaleigh Ritter (Lincoln-Way East), York middle blockers Gigi and Stella Barr, outside hitter/middle blocker Beau Vanderlaan (Fenwick), outside hitter Nikolette Nedic (Hinsdale Central) and rightside/outside Esma Ajanovic (Niles North).
Other teams to watch: Illini Elite, Club Fusion.