Mallory Thelander firmly believes that little victories lead to bigger victories.
As an example, Evanston’s head girls volleyball coach can point to most of her team’s preseason practices. Even when it’s time for the middle hitters to take a turn in passing drills, that doesn’t bring an immediate end to the drill. That’s a win for the Wildkits — compared to what they were able to accomplish last year.
And after suffering through one of the worst seasons in school history — 11-26 overall and 2-8 in Central Suburban League South division play — in Thelander’s first season at the helm, the Wildkits all know that they’ll need a passing grade to turn things around this fall.
Better passing is the key to getting the ETHS offense untracked and Thelander will find out just how much progress the Wildkits have made in that area when they open the 2017 campaign Wednesday night at home versus Lane Tech.
Tournament play the first two weekends at Libertyville and New Trier could also determine whether the Kits can pull off a winning season.
Evanston’s poor passing as a group in 2016 limited the effectiveness of its hitters and often found the Kits stuck around the 20 point mark at the end of matches, unable to close out victories.
“We’ve already done a few ball control drills in practice that we couldn’t even complete last year,” Thelander pointed out. “And usually in practice it’s the middle hitters who are what we call drill killers, but not this year. Now they can pass, too.
“With 5 returning starters and improved ball control, I’m very hopeful and very excited for the season. We’re carrying more players (15) on the varsity roster than last year, when if someone got into a rut we really didn’t have many options to sub for them. We had more competitive tryouts this year and all 15 of them have earned their spots.”
Senior libero Patty Duffy and junior Siena Prokopenko should provide back row excellence. Prokopenko had a cup of coffee with the varsity team as a freshman, then anchored a 21-13 JV team last year. Duffy is as solid as they come in the back line and the Wildkits missed her skillful ballhandling and determination on defense when she was sidelined with an injury the second half of the season.
Senior Samantha Kaiser is back to run the 6-2 offense along with classmate Holly Desmond at setter. “Sam plays club ball with Sports Performance, and she just keeps getting better and better every year,” Thelander praised. “We’ll rely on them to switch up our offense, and we’re very confident in both of them with the way they play defense.”
Opportunity knocks at the right side hitter position, the only spot where the Wildkits don’t have a returning starter. Thelander is seeking an impact player from a group that includes 5-foot-11 Souadou Bangoura, left-hander junior Lucy Hart, and 6-2 junior Clara Siebert. Also in the mix is junior Erin Eddy.
Bangoura is a move-in from Maryland who is still adjusting to playing in the front row. “She has a lot of experience — she played on the varsity three years in Maryland — but she was more of a passer in the back row than a hitter,” Thelander pointed out. “She’s a super nice girl, but she’s pretty aggressive when it comes to her hitting. She’s still making that transition to playing in the front row.”
Six-foot-1 Rosemary Gibbons, a junior who paced ETHS in kills last season, heads the list of candidates to play opposite hitter along with junior Maya Mahoney, and senior Claire Berne. Berne’s emergence at the end of the season last year helped the Wildkits win 5 of their last 8 matches.
Senior Maggie Sereika could rank among the area’s best middles in her final swing, and she’ll be backed up by junior Anna Henthorn. Defensive specialists Maddy Patke and Kat Seghal should also find varsity minutes once they adjust to the faster pace.
“With better ball control this year, we’re hoping to get the ball to Maggie a lot more,” said Thelander. “She’s super agile and in practice she’s been jumping out of the gym. She really brings a lot of energy to the court, and she’s really looking good right now. She’s so focused and she really wants to get better. She’s so coachable.
“Last year we had a difficult time finishing off matches — we always seemed to get stuck at 18, 19, 20 points. Now we’re focused on playing all the way to the end, not just to 20 points. We’re also in better shape, because once you get tired you tend to get back to bad habits and that’s when you lose matches at the end.”
ETHS competes in the 16-team Crosstown Classic Tournament hosted by Warren and Libertyville this weekend. The Kits will be tested in pool play on Friday with matches versus Stevenson, Wauconda and Grayslake North.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.