What does it take to make a long run in the state tournament?
Talent helps. A little luck never hurts either.
But ask a coach who has been there or has been around volleyball a long time and they will likely say that having strong senior leadership can often make the difference between a quick exit and an extended stay in the tournament.
“I think it's critically important to have good senior leadership,” said Plainfield Central coach Erik Vogt, who in addition to heading a solid high school program has been instrumental in Sports Performance Mizuno 18 Elite’s dominance at the AAU level.
“Over the past three years, our program at Plainfield Central has had really strong seniors who set the standard for everyone underneath them … whether they are freshmen or super sophomores. Seniors set the standard for your program.”
Vogt believes that seniors are the players successful teams turn to when the pressure builds with each point.
“Championships are won or lost in the 20s,” he said. “Those kids who have started on varsity for one or two years play a critical role in the 20s. A senior who has been in that position before knows how to take the big swings. They’re worth 1 million bucks.”
Vogt cites Geneva and Minooka as examples of teams that had success with younger players, but were not able to walk away with the big prize at Redbird Arena.
“When the Geneva kids were sophomores they got to the sectional and fell short (losing to Benet in the semifinals),” he said. “Last year, they were senior-based and went pretty far (losing to eventual national champion Mother McAuley in the supersectional).
“Last year, a lot of the Minooka kids were juniors but they had a senior setter leading them and got all the way to second in the state,” Vogt added.
Among the intangibles that comes with a solid group of seniors is confidence, said Minooka coach Carrie Prosek.
“You see just how much more they have matured every single year,” said Prosek, whose 33-2 team features 11 seniors who were part of last year’s 35-7 state runner-up including Player of the Year candidate Allison Papesh, outside hitter Rocky Perinar and libero Taylor Baranski.
“When they walked in the gym at the beginning of the year, it was like we never left,” Prosek added. “Last year, when they came in they were timid and we had to work through some things. This year, it’s like we never left and I think it's because it's because they’re all seniors.”
When those seniors all accept their roles, it’s gravy on a breakfast biscuit.
“If you look at our statistics, for the most part they are equal across the board,” Prosek said. “They all know their roles and they're all excited for the other person’s success. Nearly every game we’ve had a different superstar and they're all happy for each other.”
Brad Baker has won three state titles at Benet in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Each team was different, but they all had one thing in common – senior leadership.
His 2011 team was led by seniors Jenna Jendryk and Meghan Haggerty. Seniors setter Hannah Kaminsky and libero Sheila Doyle were the foundations on which his 2012 title team was built, and in 2014 middle hitter Rachel Fara was the cornerstone of Benet’s state championship run.
“Any time you have experienced players, it definitely helps,” he said. “As a coaching staff, we've been there. But having players take control of things, having them be the ones that lead in situations and having buy-in from kids to be in those leadership situations is very important.
“As coaches, we don't play a point,” Baker added. “The players are the ones who are out there on the court. We can make adjustments that need to be made, but the players have to have the confidence that to make those adjustments work.
“Having seniors is like having coaches on the floor, which helps,” he said.
Seniors can also take some of the pressure off younger players in win-or-go-home matches, said Naperville Central’s Brie Isaacson, who won state titles at the school during her first go-round in 2005 and 2007.
“When you get in situations where you're season ends or goes on because of a single match, that's when senior leadership really shows because they can absorb some of the pressure out of the floor,” she said. “When you do that, you can have your younger kids play well, too.”
Lincoln-Way East coach Kris Fiore, who won a state title with the school’s boys team in 2014 and led the Griffins to a runner-up finish last spring, echoed Isaacson’s comments.
“Volleyball is such an emotional rollercoaster,” he said. “From one point to the next, momentum changes constantly. Players who have been through it before know what to expect so it's not a big deal to them. You lose a couple points here and there and they've experienced it before during playoff time.
“I think there's a calming aspect to having senior leaders,” he added. “Younger kids look to the seniors at crunch time and see how they react to certain situations, and if they are calm, chances are the rest of the team is going to be calm, too.”