Evanston Township High School’s girls volleyball program showed in the 2021 home opener Wednesday night that it’s ready to put a decade of losing behind it for good.

That’s how big a step a 25-20, 25-21 victory over Regina Dominican could turn out to be for the Wildkits.

Coach Liz Brieva’s team found a way to win – no small achievement, no matter how basic that sounds – and evened their record at 4-4 on the young season.

ETHS teammates Jenna Harrison (left) and Kate Schepke. (Submitted photo)

Senior Maeve Dillon’s seven kills combined with her teammates’ unflappable play under pressure marked a departure from the Kits’ past, when mistakes would multiply until they’d find they were in a hole too deep to dig out of completely.

Even when hitting errors by the hosts helped keep the Panthers close in the second set, Wildkit setters Lauren Sitz and Maya Valentine, both juniors, made the correct choices on back-to-back plays and turned to Dillon to deliver consecutive kills from her middle hitter slot that put ETHS on top to stay.

“Best match of the season”

Brieva says she has noticed a change in the team personality that could bode well for the future, although ETHS is still part of one of the toughest volleyball conferences in Illinois. The Wildkits will have to contend with Central Suburban League rivals New Trier, Niles West, Glenbrook South, Maine South and Glenbrook North on a weekly basis and must still figure out a way to challenge those squads on a consistent basis.

But just breathing the rarified – for ETHS – air of a break-even record was an experience for the Kits to embrace in the first week of September.

Evanston’s varsity girls volleyball team. (Submitted photo)

“I’d have to say that was our best match of the season,” said Brieva. “Why? Because we just kept fighting and we just kept pushing, and we didn’t give Regina the opportunity to get away from us. It came down to a few good serves from Sitz at the end there and we did just enough to win it.

“In the second set, I thought we played better even though we had more missed serves. Maeve had two big swings, instead of just tipping the ball, on two plays in a row there when we needed it.”

Coach praises team resilience

If there is a turnaround in effect, the ETHS coach said it started when the Wildkits dropped the first set of a match against Vernon Hills at the Libertyville Invitational tournament last Saturday, then rallied from behind in the second set and also pulled out the third set.

That’s the kind of toughness and grit Brieva would like to see more of as the season progresses. With senior leaders like Dillon and liberos (back row defensive specialists) Katie Schepke and Celia Ward, the swagger could return to the program sooner rather than later.

“I think this team is more resilient than some of the teams in the past, and it’s so much fun to see the desire and the drive and the team unity they’ve shown so far,” Brieva said. “In that tournament against Vernon Hills we were able to change the momentum and win that third set because they’re so resilient, and that’s something we haven’t been able to do before.

“Last year we had so many close matches – but we couldn’t win the close ones. At some point, we’d just give up. And I think this team has a different personality than last year. For one thing, they’re calm under pressure, especially our passers. They don’t get rattled.”

Wildkits win replay point

At Beardsley Gymnasium Wednesday night, neither team led in the first set by more than two points until Evanston outscored the Panthers 11-6 to close out the set.

Leading 20-18, the Wildkits lost what could have been a crucial point when the two officials couldn’t agree on a call at the net and decided instead on a replay. So how did ETHS respond? This time it was with an ace serve by Schepke to earn that point all over again.

Kills by Dillon and Amelia Darrah, and an ace serve by Sophie Lechleitner, sealed the set win.

Evanston forged ahead 15-11 in the second set, but Regina reeled off five unanswered points. That momentum was short-lived as Sitz set Dillon for a middle hit that got the serve back, and Valentine subbed in and promptly set up Dillon for another kill.

That was the start of a 6-0 run and the Panthers never got closer than four points after that.