Sarah Kushner is bigger, stronger, faster, more experienced, a better defender and an even better passer than she was last year as a sophomore. That can only mean even more bad news for Naperville North opponents in 2017.
Kushner put the whole arsenal on display Wednesday against Kaneland in both teams’ tournament opener at the Falcon Classic hosted by Wheaton North. The 5-foot-9 junior outside hitter had 7 kills, a couple of blocks and 7 digs to lead the Huskies to a 25-12, 25-20 victory.
Six of Kushner’s kills came in Game 1 and four were part of an 9-1 run that allowed Naperville North (1-0) to extend a 12-7 lead.
“This is her third year on varsity and she brings a wealth of experience on the court,” Naperville North coach Jen Urban said. “She's always played at a really high club level and consistently got better during the off-season.
“This year, she comes in a lot more physical and has a lot more strategy behind her game, which is great to see,” the coach added.
Kushner credits a lot of her success to her teammates, including seven seniors who were an integral part of last year’s 23-14 team.
“I have had really good leaders as I have gone through the Huskie program, so I really feel comfortable on the court,” she said. “All my teammates are talking to me and making me feel comfortable. I'm playing with all my heart, as is everyone else.
“We have a really big group of seniors who are really knowledgeable, I will say ‘wise’ volleyball players on our team,” Kushner added. “We have only two or three new people on the varsity, so it's the same group of girls that we had last year.”
Although she may be better known for her offensive prowess. Kushner spent a great deal of time during the offseason improving other aspects of her game.
“My passing and defense are the biggest improvements I have made,” she said. “I worked on them a lot during the club season. I know that's really important here because without passing you can't set up our offense.”
Kushner was by no means the entire show Wednesday. Junior rightside hitter Kayla Griesbach added 6 kills and 4 digs, senior Ariana Budnik had 3 kills and 7 digs and junior setter Grace Selman contributed 10 assists and 9 digs.
“We have a lot of heart,” Kushner said. “Every practice, we’re working our hardest. We never give up on a play. We’re playing for each other, not ourselves. We work a lot playing as a team. That’s really going to help us go far this season.”
Kaneland (1-1), which lost most of its starters from the team that won the Falcon Classic last year and reached the Class 3A sectional finals, might find the going a little tougher this season after being bumped up to Class 4A.
Katie Jablonski, a 5-10 junior outside hitter, had 3 kills, 1 assists and 5 digs for the Knights, who have only three seniors on its 13-player roster.
“We had more serving errors and a couple of hitting errors in Game 2, but that something we can clean up and it’s part of being young,” Kaneland coach Cyndi Violett said. “We’ll get there. Some of Game 1 was jitters, and some of it is just still gelling and figuring each other out and playing together.
“It’s still early in the season to get going as a team,” she added. “I do like the fact that they have that ‘don’t give up’ attitude. They don't let things get to them. They let things roll off their shoulders and play the next point.”