With no flow to the game on either side during Saturday’s Silver Division bracket play at Warren High School, Evanston volleyball coach Mallory Thelander called on her bench in the third set against Champaign Central.
Senior Clara Siebert and junior Maya Mahoney delivered in such a big way that they earned starts in the finale and helped the Wildkits secure a 25-21, 25-22 triumph over Libertyville at the Crosstown Classic Tournament. The Kits won the Silver Division and placed 5th overall in the 16-team invitational.
Evanston, 5-1 overall, is now in a position to find a hot hand whenever Thelander needs one, thanks to a deeper bench that has the starters looking over their shoulders after they make a mistake or two.
That’s just the kind of competitive edge that Thelander is seeking in her second season as head coach, and her decision to expand the varsity roster to 15 players this fall has paid dividends so far.
Siebert, in fact, almost didn’t make the varsity cut after starting several matches as a junior. The 6-foot-1 senior middle rode to the rescue Saturday in a 25-22, 18-25, 25-14 triumph over Champaign that featured numerous hitting and ballhandling errors in the early morning contest.
Evanston was tied at 9-all with the Maroons when Siebert served up six straight points, including a pair of aces, to help the Wildkits pull away. Mahoney contributed all 3 of her kills in the final set and teamed up with Rosemary Gibbons (11 kills) and Maggie Serieka (4 kills, 3 solo blocks, 3 assist blocks) for the winners.
Mahoney added 5 kills in the finale versus Libertyville, as Gibbons again led the way with 6.
“The best programs do have depth, and that’s what we’ve got this year,” Thelander proclaimed. “What’s really huge is getting the girls to buy into this. They need to know that playing time is not guaranteed, that they have to earn it.
“Sometimes girls might shy away from being competitive, but as coaches we’re letting them know what goes into our decisions and how to earn a spot as a starter. I had a conversation with Maya the other day about being competitive and she really did a good job of stepping in for Claire Berne today. Yesterday it was the opposite and Claire did a great job. As a coach, last year I had to watch them struggle through bad times because we didn’t have this kind of depth.
Now, with 15 girls on the roster, you have to come in and compete every day.”
For Siebert, the satisfaction has come from just being able to get back on the court — whether as a starter or reserve — after she missed 6 months following reconstructive surgery on her jaw last winter.
The senior standout didn’t pick up a volleyball all summer — she even took a trip to China — because of doctor’s orders not to risk an injury. And she’s still battling to get back into “volleyball shape.”
“It was rough not being able to play, and my expectations were really pretty low coming into tryouts,” Siebert said. “Even when I’m not starting, it’s still fun to be here and cheer on the others. It’s really not so bad, because my favorite part of volleyball is my teammates and the atmosphere around the team, and that hasn’t been impacted at all.
“The JV (junior varsity) girls were really good last year and we knew they were coming. I don’t mind (sharing playing time) because overall our whole team is doing better this year, and that’s what’s important. Every single JV girl is good at passing and our defense has been elevated so much because of them. Playing time is not a big deal to me.”
Siebert’s ability to perform at the service line is what sets her apart from other middles, according to Thelander. Her line drive serves produced a pair of aces just when the Wildkits needed them most.
“Clara has really worked her butt off to get back in shape,” Thelander praised. “She didn’t play club, she didn’t touch a volleyball all summer, but her volleyball knowledge is one reason we kept her around. She can go into the back row when other middles can’t, and it really helps when you have a middle in the back row you can have confidence in. She really serves aggressively.”
ETHS broke out to a 12-5 advantage over Libertyville in the second set and never did trail after that. An ace by Libertyville’s Kailey Christenson did pull the losers to within 20-18, but Evanston answered with kills by Holly Desmond, Gibbons and Siebert and outscored Libertyville 5-4 down the stretch. Gibbons clinched the match with the kill for the 25th point, off an assist from setter Desmond (9 assists).
The Wildkits qualified for the Silver Division by advancing out of their pool with two wins in three matches Friday night. The Kits lost to Stevenson (25-23, 8-25, 15-11), defeated Wauconda (25-20, 25-23) and picked up a forfeit victory over Grayslake North to place second in the pool.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.