Niles West wasn’t the only boys volleyball team that Evanston struggled against last spring en route to a winless season in Central Suburban League South division play.
But the Wildkit spikers have come to regard the Wolves as a particular nemesis — and the first matchup between the two squads this year at Beardsley Gym Tuesday night took place in an emotional atmosphere for both teams.
With juniors Charlie Knepper and Evan Lindley providing the finishing touches, the Kits scored their first win over the Wolves since 2013 by earning a straight sets triumph by scores of 27-25 and 26-24. Evanston improved to 2-1 in league play and 6-5 overall.
“Niles West has really had our number the last couple of years,” said ETHS head coach Mike McDermott. “Regardless of what athletes they seem to put out on the floor, they’re a very difficult team to score those scrappy points on. You can’t score the easy ones against them. You have to really put the ball down against them in crunch time.
“I know they’ve had their struggles this year, but tonight they still jumped on us early. They still proved to be a nemesis for us.”
West couldn’t cope with a new and improved version of Knepper, whose role on the squad his first two seasons consisted of being a service specialist as a freshman and a backup back row player as a sophomore.
Now he’s bigger (6 feet, 3 inches) and stronger with the same killer serve that earned the notice of the varsity coaching staff in the first place. And he’s secured a starting job at outside hitter on a team that is deeper at that position than since back when the Wildkits last won the conference championship back in 2008.
Tuesday night, Knepper served up 12 straight points — including 4 ace serves — to rally Evanston from a 17-8 deficit in the first set. Fittingly, he also recorded what would have been the set-winning tip, although technically the Wolves were whistled for a net violation for the 27th point.
In the second set, Lindley (7 kills) scored five of the last six points for the Wildkits to overcome a late 23-20 deficit.
Eitan Sondak added 18 assists and 3 kills and Ethan Ross contributed 4 kills and 5 blocks for the winners.
McDermott marveled at the composure shown by Knepper during that brilliant run at the service line. He never missed, not even when the streak ended, prevailing through two timeouts called by Niles West coach Drew Roche.
“He was outstanding for us tonight as far as his execution,” McDermott said. “He served through those two timeouts, and he didn’t get rattled. Last year he probably would have missed after that first timeout — and he definitely would have missed after the second one. It’s just amazing how much different his focus is this year. Charlie makes the least amount of unforced errors on the entire team, and even though he’s a junior, he’s setting the bar for his teammates. He’s proving to be our most consistent outside hitter on both offense and on defense.
“Right now I think we’re in a good spot as a team. If we play like we did against New Trier last week, we can compete against anybody.”
Four of the teams the Wildkits have lost to this spring — undefeated New Trier, Loyola Academy, Hersey and Glenbard East — are currently ranked in the top 20 in the Chicago area.