The postseason play brought out the best in the Wildkits volleyball team, even though there was no happy ending Tuesday night at Beardsley Gym.
There were still more smiles on the faces of the losers than on those of the winners after second-seeded Hersey managed to pull away for a 25-20, 25-16 over the Kits in the semifinals of the Class 4A Evanston Regional tournament.
Evanston finished with the second worst won-loss record — 11-26 — in the history of the program, but the feeling coming out of the season-ending loss was that the Kits and first-year head coach Mallory Thelander are already looking forward to next year. And they can’t wait to get started on turning things around.
That turnaround actually began a couple of weeks ago and while a 5-3 stretch in the last 8 matches didn’t grab any headlines, it was proof for Thelander and Co. that the best is yet to come.
Junior libero Patty Duffy, a co-captain along with graduating seniors Caitlin Sweeney and Molly Conover, led an inspired defensive effort that produced several long rallies before the Huskies finally took charge of the match.
“I think we really ended the season on a positive note tonight,” Thelander said. “I just told the girls that they should be proud of the way they played. It’s unbelievable where they’ve come from since we started in August.
“Hersey has a lot more experience than we do and they know what it takes to win. But we could have won this match tonight. We definitely played better defense and our setters did well running a 6-2 tonight, because that’s something we haven’t done for awhile.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement next year because they’re all so committed to the game. We only graduate 5 seniors (Sweeney, Conover, Reed Frazel, Yngride Jean-Phillipe and Laurianne Pene) and I think there’s a close bond among the girls we have coming back. We have so much good talent returning and we’ll see how much the sophomores and juniors grow in the off-season. I think we can be super successful if they keep working to improve.”
Evanston put together such a strong upset bid Tuesday that the Huskies, seeded No. 2 in the Glenbrook South Sectional behind Loyola Academy, had to raise their level of play to advance. Hersey’s combination of front row blocks and back row digs, however, made it almost impossible for Evanston’s hitters to find any open court for points.
Claire Berne and Maggie Serieka, both juniors, paced ETHS with 6 kills apiece.
Evanston’s turnaround began after Duffy came off the shelf after suffering a broken finger that kept her out of action for 3 weeks in the middle of the season. The junior was playing some of her best volleyball just prior to the mishap, and came back with a splint on her finger and played through the pain as soon as she could be cleared to get back in the lineup.
Adrenaline — and Advil — helped her play while nursing the injury, according to Duffy.
“I didn’t feel it. Mostly it just felt numb, because of adrenaline and because of Advil,” she said. “It kinda sucks, the number of games we lost, but tonight I thought we played awesome. We improved so much this year. We worked on our teamwork and our energy and tried to figure out this whole season how to bring it all together. Tonight, I think we did that.
“We have a bunch of good hitters on this team and every day in practice I just tried to get as many reps (repetitions) against them as I could so I could get better. This was a good note for us to end on. It was still a fun season and I know the potential for this team is great.”
“Patty was unbelievable tonight,” Thelander praised. “She dug up lots of really good hits by Hersey. I thought we had some really good communication going for us in the back row tonight. And Maggie (Serieka) had some unbelievable kills on balls they couldn’t even touch!”
Trailing 21-13 in the first set, Evanston refused to quit. The Kits closed to within 24-20 on two Hersey miscues, another hitting error and an ace serve by Clara Siebert. But the Huskies closed out the match when 6-foot-1 middle Zoe Strozewski blocked a shot by Jean-Phillipe in a 1-on-1 confrontation.
ETHS broke out to an early 5-3 advantage, but Hersey ran off 6 unanswered points and never trailed again. Closest the hosts could get after that was at 10-13, when a quick set by Conover led to a Serieka kill.
Siena Prokopenko, one of three sophomores promoted from the junior varsity team that finished 21-13 overall, teamed up with Duffy for several digs in the back row when the two were on the floor at the same time to keep the Kits alive.