No member of the Evanston coaching staff had an exact number for the missed serves the Wildkit volleyball team suffered through during pool play Friday night at the Libertyville Crosstown Classic tournament.
The best guess? About 25 in a win over Grant and losses to Zion-Benton and Lakes, or 20 more than first-year head coach Mallory Thelander would prefer on that side of the ledger.
So the Wildkits needed a quick turnaround in that area when they returned to action for bracket play Saturday — and they got it, at least in that one part of the game.
Led by junior co-captain Patty Duffy, the Wildkits uncorked 20 ace serves — and only missed 12 — en route to an overall 11th place showing in the 16-team field. Evanston dropped an 11-25, 25-23, 25-19 decision to Mundelein before rallying to a 25-17, 25-17 triumph over Grayslake North.
Thelander’s inexperienced squad concluded the first week of the season with a less-than-satisfying 2-5 overall record but at least made some progress at the service line. Duffy’s 6 aces, plus 5 from Reed Frazel and 4 apiece from Rosemary Gibbons and Claire Berne, not only allowed the Wildkits to generate some points but made it more difficult for the competition.
“Both of the teams we played today had trouble with serve reception, so that had something to do with it. And it was probably a bit of an exaggeration when we said we missed 25 on yesterday,” Thelander said. “But we were definitely more aggressive at the service line today. We still gave them zones to serve to, but today I told them to just keep it simple and get the ball over the yet.
“On Friday it was two made serves and then a miss almost every time. We seemed to have a lot of trouble focusing, and not just at the line. And that was after all we did on practice on Thursday before the tournament was practice serves. I can’t explain the issues we’re having.”
Duffy was responsible for extended scoring runs almost every time it was her turn against Mundelein and Grayslake North. She was on the spot for a 7-0 run (including an ace) in the first set as the Kits pulled away to a 13-5 advantage, before the Mustangs got on track to take the last two sets.
Against Grayslake North, the 5-foot-4 junior served up 3 consecutive aces with her floater accuracy as part of a 6-0 run after the Knights had closed to within 16-14 in the first set.
Not bad for a player who wasn’t even on the varsity radar midway through last season and now might be the squad’s most improved individual.
As a sophomore on the JV squad, Duffy couldn’t beat out Siena Prokopenko at the libero spot and really didn’t get much court time at all until Prokopenko was promoted to the varsity at the end of the season. Now her passing and serving have been bright spots for an ETHS squad that is still searching for an identity and still hasn’t decided on a permanent rotation.
“Patty’s serves were really good today,” Thelander praised. “We needed her to be more consistent back there, and she was. We just wanted her to challenge the other team to be able to make some plays. She’s a leader by example as a captain and the other girls feed off of her. She showed her leadership skills today. And she’s been getting the ball to the hitters pretty well, too. They’re just not making good decisions as hitters.”
“Yesterday was just a bad day. We had a new start today. We just had to forget about yesterday and play like it was a new day against new teams,” Duffy declared. “Confidence means a lot in volleyball, and I know because mine is usually all over the place (up and down). We were a lot more confident as a team today.
“I know I wasn’t on anybody’s radar last year. I couldn’t get the reps until Siena moved up to the varsity. I wasn’t a libero last year, just a defensive specialist, and I really like the libero position more. I like the feeling you get when you get a dig back there, or when you get a good pass or a good serve. This summer I went to all of the games and tried to get as many reps as I could. That helped my confidence improve, and that helped me become a better player.”
Duffy’s ability to mix up her serves — and still get the ball over the net — led to those 3 straight aces versus Grayslake North in the first set. She floated a serve deep to the open floor, found another ace with a short serve, then smacked a line drive right at a North player that she couldn’t handle. That effort built the score to 22-14 and a subsequent kill by Clara Siebert helped finish off that set.
In the second set, senior Frazel came off the bench to deliver aces for the 24th and 25th points of a 25-17 triumph.
“I do think we made some progress here from our first match yesterday,” added Duffy. “We are still trying to come together as a team. We were able to finish things off pretty well today, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.