It takes time to change the culture surrounding any high school athletic program, and that’s the challenge that new Evanston head girls volleyball coach Liz Brieva is ready to take on.
Brieva, who moved up from the junior varsity ranks last spring to replace Mallory Thelander after Thelander decided to take the head coaching job at Loyola Academy, has plenty of familiar faces — but not much actual on-court experience — to count on when the Wildkits open their season Monday at home against Maine East.
Senior outside hitters Maya Mahoney and Rosemary Gibbons, along with defensive specialist Siena Prokopenko, are back from an ETHS squad that posted a 17-19 won-loss record last year. It marked the 5th losing season in the past 6 years for the girls program and Brieva is eager to begin a turnaround.
To that end, the new head coach is posting a sign in the locker room noting the season-by-season results for ETHS in 2012 (13-24), 2013 (16-19), 2014 (19-17), 2015 (16-20), 2016 (11-26) and 2017 (17-19) in an attempt to jolt the players’ pride on a daily basis and remind them that extra effort will be needed to get the Kits back on the winning track.
Evanston hasn’t won a conference championship since 1987 in girls volleyball and the last Illinois High School Association regional title came back in 2014. So there’s plenty of work for Brieva and assistant coach Denise Rossa to do.
“I see all of these girls as very dedicated and very driven people,” Brieva said. “Whether or not they have the ability to put it all together and push through the difficult times remains to be seen. But we think they have what it takes to do that.
“The seniors are a special group because they all play multiple sports, and the juniors are all straight volleyball players who can’t get enough of the game, so that makes them a unique group, too. Right now everyone is focused on team bonding and making sure they all get along on and off the court. If we do bond and we do get along, then we’ll succeed. We’re really working on that right now.
“We have an advantage because we’ve coached every single kid except Rosemary (Gibbons was promoted to the varsity as a freshman) and they know what to expect from us. This is a very special group and they’ve done everything we’ve asked of them so far. Our goals? We’re going to strip it down to winning each point by point, being aggressive with our serves, and not holding anything back.”
The Wildkits have lacked a “go-to” hitter on offense during most of those losing campaigns but Brieva believes both Mahoney and the 6-foot-2 Gibbons can fill that bill as seniors.
“I think they’re both very strong players,” said the coach. “They both could be go-to hitters for us. They’re very aggressive and very seasoned, and they know how to place shots and how to be smart about where they hit.”
In the middle, 6-1 sophomore Izzi Darrah and senior Anna Henthorn will split playing time. Prokopenko is already a two-year starter at the libero slot, and help will also come from seniors Kat Sehgal, Lucy Hart and Erin Eddy along with juniors Lucy Egan, Aliyah Valentine, Hannah Wiltgen and Emma Hinterhauser.
Six-foot junior Rileigh Farragher will run the attack from the setter position, although Sehgal will also play a more prominent role if Brieva decides to employ a 6-2 alignment to take advantage of Farragher’s hitting capabilities.
Farragher actually began her high school career as a middle hitter but made enough progress handling the ball and passing to earn a promotion to the varsity at the tail end of her sophomore season.
“Rileigh is a great hitter,” Brieva pointed out. “In middle school she trained as a setter with (former ETHS head coach ) Pam MacPherson, but her club team needed her to play the middle. So she grew up playing both spots and she really does a great job with both spots. She has the drive and she has the determination.
“With the experience she got on the varsity last year, she’s slid right into her role very nicely so far, almost seamlessly. She has great hands, and she’s a great communicator and a good leader. She talks a lot on the court and she’s getting a lot of feedback from the hitters so they can get their sets in the right spots. They’ve really been working well together.”
Evanston opens the 2018 season with home matches against Maine East (Monday) and Jones College Prep (Wednesday), and will compete in the Libertyville Invitational tournament on Friday and Saturday.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.