A group of seniors had one more chance to ask Paris McFall a couple of questions in a quiet corridor next to Beardsley Gym on Tuesday night.
And as the group broke up, one of them said to the Evanston first-year volleyball coach, “I wish you had coached us all four years.”
That comment would have been the ultimate compliment for any first-year coach at the conclusion of a season.
But what made it even more noteworthy was that it came after the Wildkits were eliminated from the Class 4A Evanston Regional tournament with a 25-23, 25-15 loss to Palatine Fremd and finished with a 10-26 won-loss record.
The Wildkits played just as hard for McFall at the end as they did at the beginning of the year and the departure of six seniors – Carter Aaron, Maya Valentine, Claire Henthorn, Sophie Lechleitner, Jessica Sehgal and Meg Houseworth – from the squad didn’t come as any kind of relief after what could have been a forgettable season.
The losses piled up on Evanston, especially in the second half of the year, but McFall and Co. didn’t let it get to them.
There was no quit in a group that learned to be competitive, the first step to building the ETHS program back to respectability after more than a decade of losing.
“I think sometimes we forget the human side of things,” McFall said after the No. 5 seeded Vikings advanced to the championship match Thursday against Niles West, the No. 4 seed.
“I coached a lot of them when they were younger [at his Northbrook-based club program]. These girls are funny and smart and they were great to be around. I’m really going to miss them. They’re great people and I think they really grew over the course of the season, even with the losses piling up.
“A lot more of our matches were competitive this year and we showed we can hang with the better teams.”
Lechleitner’s seven kills and some clutch serving overall by the Wildkits kept them in contention all night Tuesday against the 26-10 Fremd squad. After falling behind 13-7 in the first set, they rattled off 6 straight points – including a pair of aces by sophomore Gillian Colledge – to pull even midway through the set.
Later the Vikings led 18-15 on an ace by Charmee Suraparaju. But Suraparaju missed the next serve and that signaled the start of another Evanston surge, as junior Margot Van Nice registered back-to-back blocks for points and Valentine contributed a pair of aces in a 6-0 run to make it 21-18 in favor of the hosts.
Evanston, however, mustered just a couple of points more and consecutive aces by Hallie Neill closed out the set for the Vikings. The Kits’ only lead in the second set came at 3-2, but they didn’t go away quietly.
“I think if we’d gotten that first set, that would have given us all the momentum,” said McFall. “It was a very good match overall for both teams – and I think it was one of the best matches we’ve played this year. Everyone stepped up for us. We were relentless on defense, we understood our schemes and we executed very, very well in that first set.”
Not only was it a challenge for McFall to keep a positive mindset and high morale on the squad over the last six weeks of the season, he also took a risk for someone in charge of a senior-dominated team and completely changed the offense to a setup none of the veterans were familiar with.
Not a 6-2, and not a 5-1, the offense was more of a hybrid that McFall drew on based on his experience as a club coach. “The idea was to give us more offense and have our best hitters on the court longer,” he explained.
“Not a lot of teams do it, even in club. It’s a triangle offense that I thought played to our strength as a team. You have to break out of your box [the mindset of identifying at a specific position] and do more, no matter what your position is.
“I think it’s a more creative offense and it get you more engaged mentally. It was our best chance to throw other teams off of their game. The girls fought it for the first couple of weeks, but once they saw the stats that showed we were more competitive, the results spoke for themselves.
“We just tried to keep fighting and make sure other teams earned their points, to make sure we didn’t beat ourselves. We almost stole a set against Niles West and we almost stole one tonight, too.”
McFall indicated that he might stick with the new offense next year, depending on the makeup of the varsity roster. Sophomore setter Lina Houser seemed to thrive when given the opportunity to run the “triangle” as one of four sophomores – Colledge, Kylie O’Connor and Sofie Lindroth were the others – who moved up to the varsity in 2022.
Their presence at the varsity level also opened the door for more opportunities for players on the junior varsity squad, which posted a winning record (19-14 overall, third in the season-ending Central Suburban League tournament).
“Lina showed she can set and play in the front row,” McFall said. “Will we be one of the few teams on the girls side to run a 5-1? Or will be go back to the triangle? We could run a 6-2, too. We’ll look at all the options.
“Our JV team had a lot of success this year and I couldn’t be happier with the way they improved. I definitely think we have something to build on now.”