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A strong junior class leads Mike McDermott to think in terms of a two-year plan to get Evanston’s boys volleyball program back on the winning track.
But make no mistake, the ETHS head coach also wants to win now, beginning with Wednesday’s season opener against Northside College Prep.
With four players returning from last spring’s rotation, McDermott aims to at least reverse last year’s 16-21 won-loss record as the Wildkits seek their first winning season since 2008. This year the ETHS coach thinks he has the tools to do just that, led by returnees Eitan Sondak, Charlie Knepper, Xavi Ajamia and Chiril Russo. And of that group of veterans, only Russo is a senior.
“We haven’t had a lot of success the last four or five years, and last year there were a lot of matches where we should have had a better chance to win. But our volleyball skill level just wasn’t high enough,” McDermott acknowledged. “This year we’re a much younger team — but with a much higher skill level.”
Sondak, a 6-foot-4 junior, will assume more of the setting chores this time around and Knepper, a sophomore who possesses a sizzling serve, figures to see more court time at outside hitter or perhaps at libero. Ajamia, a 6-5 junior, and Russo, a 6-1 senior, will lend experience at outside hitter but will have to be on top of their respective games to maintain starter’s roles ahead of a batch of juniors who are eager to make their mark this spring.
Seniors Travis Wallace and Jeff Otte are go-to guys at the middle hitters spot, but the rest of the squad consists of underclassmen. Nine players on the 15-man roster are juniors, including 6-4 middle Ethan Ross and 6-1 outside hitter Jack Vernon. Other juniors to watch are defensive specialist Ethan Goldberg, outside hitter Jack Bernin, defensive specialist Noah Kanter, outside hitter Jack Caplan, right side hitter Jeremy Levin, and setter Jackson Honnold.
Sophomores Isaac Sageman (6-6 middle) and Evan Lindley (6-4 setter) are raw, but are prime examples of the potential that McDermott and assistant coach Eric Shoemaker hope to tap into right away.
“Isaac is a big, wide-shouldered kid and he’s only in his second full year of volleyball,” the coach pointed out. “And Evan is Jonah Lindley’s younger brother, who will probably start for us on the right side. He’s big and he’s a lefty, so he’ll give us an advantage there.
“We kept a couple more guys on the varsity roster this year because they’ve all worked hard, and they just haven’t separated themselves yet. We’re so young that we still don’t know just which way some of them will go when it comes to their development. We do get a lot of late bloomers in the program every year, it seems. We’re still reliant on good athletes more than kids who have played club ball before high school, and athletic ability can’t always make up for the difference in skills like it used to. But more of our guys are starting to play a higher level of club ball now, so that will definitely help in the long run.”
McDermott hopes his squad will adopt a “defense first” mentality no matter who winds up earning the most court time.
“This will be the first year since 2008, when we won the conference, where I’ll always have six guys on the court with solid volleyball skills all the way around,” he said. “There’s no one I’ll have to hide. On that 2008 team we didn’t have that one killer hitter, but everyone could play. That’s what I think we’ll have this year.
“When there’s no weak link out there, they trust each other more on defense. That means they’ll hustle more, that they won’t give up on the ball. And defense is the only way you’ll go anywhere in our sport.”