The first hectic week of the boys volleyball season — beginning with today’s home opener against Northside College Prep and concluding with a grueling 5-day test at the Buffalo Grove Invitational tournament on Saturday — might go a long way toward telling Evanston head coach Mike McDermott just how successful his squad will be this spring.
But with every starter returning from last year, McDermott also knows that this first week won’t make or break his squad, whether their fate is a fast start or a slow start.
Evanston’s experience and depth are at an all-time peak since McDermott took over the helm and the veteran coach expects marked improvement from a team that posted a 14-23 overall won-loss mark last spring, including a 3-7 showing in Central Suburban League South division play.
Scheduled matchups Saturday against state-ranked foes Hersey, Glenbard East and Warren don’t appear as daunting for a veteran team that features players with club experience who are used to playing against the state’s elite.
“We could come out of the first week looking good, or looking bad,” McDermott said. “But the most important thing is to play some decent teams so we see what our expectations need to be as a team. The good news is that then we’ll have two weeks (due to ETHS’ spring break) to work on what we need to work on and to turn whatever happens into a good learning experience. If we have some success, then we’ll try to keep it going.
“We have everyone back and I’ve never been this deep at outside hitter and libero. Last week we had 3 starters out with the flu and we still felt like we could put together a pretty good lineup. This year every single varsity kid has at least 2 years of club experience, and about half of them have played club at a high level. That’s a huge step for us as a program. Club is the time when you’re supposed to get better as an individual, and a lot of our guys have started to figure that out now.”
Junior right side hitter Evan Lindley, an all-conference selection last year, leads an offense that should be hard to stop. He and returning 6-foot-6 middle hitter Isaac Sageman, another junior, were teammates during the club season for D1 and the success they enjoyed in the off-season should translate into more confident play for both during the high school wars.
“Right now they’re two of our most confident players, even though they’re juniors,” said McDermott. “They learned from college coaches and now they’re two certifiable college recruits as juniors. When you play on a team with the top players from (state qualifier) New Trier and Glenbrook North, you’re able to break through against any intimidation factor.
“I know it’s helped Isaac. Last year he was not super outspoken or super aggressive, but I can already tell he’s going to get after it this year. And Evan worked as a right side hitter and a setter for us last year, and he really has come along as a hitter. Last year he made a lot of errors because he was a sophomore and he was still learning. Now he’s more aggressive and he can finish plays. And he’ll probably stay on the right side because (6-5 senior) Eitan Sondak has improved so much as a setter.”
McDermott and his staff could start a lineup that averages 6-5 across the board. Xavier Ajamia returns for his fourth varsity season at outside hitter and the coach raves about his shot placement and calm demeanor on the court, even when things aren’t going well for the Wildkits.
“He keeps such an even keel out there, and it’s nice to have such a calming influence like that,” said McDermott. “Xavi brings a ton of experience. He’s not the hardest hitter we have, but he’s the craftiest because of his shot placement, and he’s our best passer.”
Senior Jeremy Levin made a successful switch from right side to outside hitter last spring, and his improved ball control is another potential plus for the Kits. Junior Charlie Knepper, who has grown to 6-3, adds solid passing when he’s on the court, and senior Jack Caplan brings both energy and ability in his role as a “super sub” off the bench.
In the middle, Sageman and 6-4 senior Ethan Ross figure to divide most of the playing time, backed up by John Brugliera, who played for the junior varsity last year.
“Ethan is really athletic and really aggressive when he’s in there,” McDermott pointed out. “He’s really an intense competitor. He really wants to win every single point.”
At libero, the Kits have turned a negative into a positive after last year’s projected starter, John Bernin, blew out his knee early in the spring and required knee surgery.
That gave Ethan Goldberg and Noah Kanter the chance to gain some valuable experience, even though play at that position was spotty at times last year.
“We really had a revolving door there when Bernin got hurt. And that meant we didn’t have any defensive consistency,” McDermott admitted. “Now we have 3 guys who have played there a lot. Ethan is one of our best players when it comes to ball control and he really runs the court well from a defensive standpoint. Now it’s good to know that if we have someone out there who is not able to get the job done, we have guys we can put in as momentum-changers.”
Senior Ben Foutty will make contributions at right side hitter when Lindley needs a breather.
Evanston’s immediate goal is to climb higher in the CSL South standings after struggling against both Niles West and Maine South during the regular season. But they also pushed eventual league champion New Trier to three sets at the Trevians’ gym.
“Last year we only had 3 conference wins, and I anticipate that we’ll do a lot better than that this year,” the coach said. “But this year our focus isn’t on the number of wins. Our focus is on how hard we can work and how well we can execute on the court. If we do that, winning will happen. If you do your job, good things will happen.”
Source: ETHS Sports Information