Evanston’s volleyball team uses two senior setters on a regular basis and that means identifying the “setter of the future” within the program is important, considering that Samm Kaiser and Holly Desmond will graduate next June.
She’s still a work in progress, but sophomore Rileigh Farragher proved over the weekend that she has the right stuff to become the heir apparent at that critical position.
With Kaiser suffering a fractured thumb last week in practice, and being sidelined for the remainder of the season, Farragher was an emergency call-up to the varsity from the junior varsity for the Discovery Tournament hosted by Glenbrook North and New Trier over the weekend. And it was the 5-foot-11 sophomore who provided some individual highlights but couldn’t prevent the Wildkits from dropping 4 out of 5 matches and stumbling to 15-12 overall on the season.
The inability to win close matches — especially down the stretch — continued to plague Coach Mallory Thelander’s squad. The Wildkits scored their only win over Niles North (25-14, 25-21) in Friday’s pool play while bowing to Loyola Academy (25-17, 25-15), West Aurora (25-19, 25-23), Grayslake Central (25-23, 27-25) and Maine West (25-18, 25-19).
Farragher only had one day of practice — last Thursday — following her promotion and did experience some timing issues with the varsity hitters.
But she contributed 12 assists in the victory over Niles North and chalked up 10 assists and 2 ace serves on Saturday against Niles West, and probably secured a permanent spot on the varsity roster. The Kits still have at least 8 regular season matches remaining before postseason play starts, and that’s plenty of time for the new setter and the older hitters to get used to each other on the court.
“Losing Samm Kaiser was really heartbreaking,” Thelander said. “It hurts not to have her out there on the court, because the other girls really feed off her and she was playing really well for us.
“Rileigh is still a little raw as a setter, but as a sophomore coming up to the varsity I expected her to freak out a little. But she made the best of it and really stepped up for us. We really needed her this weekend and we’ll still have to decide what’s going to happen going forward. With 15 girls on the roster (expanded by the varsity staff this year), we might not have brought anyone from the JV team for the regional. That could change.
“Rileigh was a middle hitter and she just ran with it when she was asked to do some setting. She’s a natural leader, and the other girls really listen to her.”
Farragher’s decision to switch positions was due partly to the evolution of the game. Tall setters have been in vogue for the past decade in both the college and high school games — although she’d be one of the taller setters ever to play at ETHS — and at 5-11 she thought she was “too short” to be a middle hitter the rest of her career.
“I really like hitting, but I’m a little too short to be a middle hitter,” she said. “I was really happy and excited to come up to the varsity this week. Hopefully I can step in and help. I played more than I thought I would this weekend, and I was able to pick it up some today.
“I was a middle hitter until my freshman year and I played both middle and setter for the Wildcat Juniors (club team). I love setting, because you’re always getting a lot of touches and you can help the hitters. I think I’m pretty good at knowing which hitters are hitting well.”
Evanston settled for a 12th place finish in the 16-team tournament field, dropping two winnable matches on Saturday. “We just didn’t have the drive or the energy that we needed today,” lamented the head coach.
Against Grayslake Central, the Wildkits were in control of the first set, leading 22-20 when Farragher fed Desmond for a kill to boost the lead to 22-20. But the Rams scored 5 of the next 6 points to snatch the victory, as a kill by Maya Mahoney wasn’t enough to keep the moment on ETHS’ side.
Neither team led by more than 2 points in the second set and the Kits again owned a late advantage at 24-23 on a hitting error by the Rams and a back-row kill by Rosemary Gibbons that produced back-to-back points. But Evanston was whistled for a net violation, fell behind on a ballhandling error and tied the contest again when Gibbons hammered down another kill.
That was the last point scored by the losers as a hitting error and a deep kill by the Rams’ Ally Block ended the match.
In the finale, Maine West bolted to an 11-4 edge in the first set, only to see the Kits close to within 20-16 on an ace serve from Patty Duffy and a kill by Gibbons. That was as close as ETHS could get.
Farragher’s 4 assists down the stretch of the second set helped Evanston maintain contact before the Warriors finally pulled away for the victory.
Evanston was voted the No. 8 seed by coaches participating in the Class 4A New Trier Sectional tournament and will be assigned to the Prospect Regional.
The Wildkits will open postseason play against No. 9 seed Palatine on October 24th at 6:30 p.m., with No. 1 seed New Trier likely awaiting the winner of that match. The regional championship match is set for October 26th at 6 p.m.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.