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Evanston’s edge in boys volleyball this season comes down to experience.
The Wildkits, under new head coach Stanley Antoine, open their season on Saturday when they host the Mike Hulett Spring Fling tournament along with co-host Loyola Academy. The nine-team tourney covers two weekends at the two sites, with the Kits matched against Lane Tech at 10:15 a.m. and against Palatine at 11:30 at Beardsley Gym on Saturday.
Three players who saw significant court time as sophomores could give Evanston an advantage after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the spring campaign entirely last year. Most teams will not have any returning players with varsity experience, with ETHS among the few that won’t be starting from scratch.
The Wildkits will be starting over, however. Following back-to-back 12-26 won-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019, when Antoine was an assistant coach in the program, the Kits are hoping to turn things around with a senior class that includes veterans Sam Johnson, Brandon Wilson, and Olu Logan.
Johnson returns after starting at the key libero position as a sophomore, while Logan (at setter) and Wilson (at outside hitter) will also providence veteran leadership. They’re among 10 seniors on the roster.
“We do have a lot of seniors, but due to COVID-19 most of them haven’t had a chance to play on the same team, to be on the same court,” Coach Antoine pointed out. “We still have to develop some chemistry. Most of them have not played together on the same team.
“We’re expecting a lot from Sam Johnson this year, and I know he expects a lot from himself. He hasn’t had to be the vocal leader on a team before. He’s been on the varsity since he was a freshman, so he’s always been kinda the ‘little brother’ on the team. Now, he has the responsibility of being a big brother.”
Help will also come from seniors Pape Cissokhe, Jamar Smith, Jaden Richardson, Sachin Patel, Cyrus Geary, Dawit Alemayehu, and Alex Pelaez, although Pelaez’s varsity soccer season doesn’t conclude until the day of the volleyball opener.
Six-foot-7 sophomore middle hitter Aidan Klein and another middle hitter, junior Jesse Ijiwola, are underclassmen to watch. Juniors Isaac Clay-Barbour (setter/defensive specialist) and Gabe Fredrickson (right side hitter) will also try to make an impact.
Coach Antoine and long-time head coach Mike McDermott have switched roles following McDermott’s 14-year tenure at the helm. Antoine was a three-year varsity standout at ETHS and was named the school’s top athlete in 2003. He played at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee and also served as an assistant coach for the Wildkit girls program.
“It’s exciting for me to come back to Evanston and take on this new challenge,” Coach Antoine said. “I knew volleyball would somehow be a part of my life after college. Long-term, I wanted to coach and share my love for the game. It’s a blessing and an amazing opportunity for me to be back at Evanston.
“Our focus is going to be on our progress, as a team, and as a program. Part of our success will be making sure people stay safe because of COVID-19. Our goal is just to be competitive every night and make sure we are always improving.”