No one wearing any Evanston uniform likes losing to New Trier.
But the Wildkit boys volleyball team sent a message this weekend at the Blue Devil Invitational tournament at Warren that when it comes to championship matchups — they belong.
New Trier dealt the Kits their first loss of the season by a 25-20, 25-17 margin in the tourney finale Saturday night, spoiling a rare championship match tournament appearance for an ETHS program that hasn’t beaten New Trier in Mike McDermott’s 10 years as head coach.
But Evanston, now 7-1 overall, also showed signs that the resurgence of the program should be taken seriously by every potential foe — even the Trevians.
Evanston’s winning string to open the season — one of the best starts in school history — was snapped after pool play victories over Mundelein (25-11, 25-9), Highland Park (15-25, 25-13, 15-10), Whitney Young (25-15, 25-7) and Stevenson (25-23, 25-22) at the two-day tourney.
“We didn’t win it, but we got to the championship match, and that’s a start,” said McDermott, who had no trouble seeing the glass as half-full despite his team’s first defeat. “This is a good step for us. Our guys decided to play on their emotions instead of their skills, and our passing just fell apart. As we like to say around the team, we looked like a clown car in the circus the way we passed. New Trier is more experienced in championship matches and they played more under control.
“We’re not quite there yet, but it was a good learning experience, especially for our younger guys. 7-1 is the best start we’ve had in quite awhile, and we’ll take it.”
Senior co-captain Evan Lindley, who paced ETHS with 50 kills in 5 tourney matches, said the Wildkits have closed the gap on their rivals to the north and is eager for the rematch between the two squads on April 20.
“It would have been easier to take losing to them if we had played well tonight,” Lindley admitted. “I always have a bitter taste just thinking about New Trier, but as great as it would’ve been to win a tournament championship, I’d much rather beat them in conference play.
“We definitely can beat them. They’re not the classic New Trier team — they’re not extremely high powered on offense — and I’ve seen better New Trier teams. We lack a little bit of experience compared to them, and it showed tonight. We’ll definitely learn from this loss.”
Lindley, who has emerged as a go-to outside hitter for the Wildkits, was making only the second championship match appearance of his playing career — and he’s one of the Kits’ most veteran players. He and classmate Isaac Sageman, competing for D1 Chicago during the club season, earned runnerup honors at a national qualifying tournament back in February when they got a rare opportunity to play for big stakes.
“It was a weird feeling, and it was awesome to play in the finals like that,” Lindley said. “And I think it’s crazy and awesome to be able to do this in the high school season. I never thought we’d start the season like this, and this is the first experience like this for the younger guys and it lets them know that we really are a high level team.”
Lindley’s 25 kills in Friday’s two pool play wins helped set the tone for the tourney, and senior Charlie Knepper followed Saturday afternoon with a school record performance at the service line in the romp over Whitney Young.
Knepper delivered 8 ace serves in that match, tying the school single match record set by Judson Mead versus St. Gregory back in 2003.
“That’s a testament to Charlie’s hard work and his resiliency on the court,” McDermott praised. “He’s very cool out there and if he makes a mistake, he just moves on to the next play. It’s hard to get that many aces (without missing) when you’re a jump server like he is. His arm swing is one of the best on our team.”
Evanston passed a stiff test to determine the pool play champion against a strong Stevenson squad. The Kits raised their level of play, especially on defense, and prevailed in the first set on kills by Lindley and junior Chris Dimitru.
The Kits forged ahead 22-18 in the second set, only to see the Patriots claw their way back into a tie due to four straight ETHS errors. But Sageman’s middle hit, off a set from Sam Weidner, got the Kits back on track and two hitting errors accounted for the final two points of the match.
Lindley (10 kills, 4 blocks), Sageman (3 kills, 5 blocks) and Weidner (17 assists, 2 ace serves) filled the stat sheet in Evanston’s most impressive win to date.
“We got a little jittery with our serve receive down the stretch, but the energy was definitely there for us the whole match,” McDermott said. “We’re playing like the team we want to be.”
Evanston’s collision course with New Trier had to be determined when tournament officials reseeded the tournament following pool play. With an odd number (25 teams) of schools competing, the usual tourney format was changed and the top 20 teams advanced to play one more match while the bottom 5 were sent home. New Trier earned the No. 1 seed and the Wildkits were seeded No. 2 even though they did lose one set (to Highland Park).
Evanston’s passing problems multiplied as the championship match progressed. New Trier surged to a 19-11 advantage in the first set and never looked back, and 5-0 run midway through the second set also put the set out of reach. Lindley hammered down 9 kills for the losers in the finale.
“Coming in to the season I’ve tried to focus on being more of a go-to guy,” he said. “Last year as a junior I spent most of the year looking up to the seniors. Now I have a lot more confidence. That was the only thing that really held me back last year. Now I know I can trust myself, I can trust my play, so if I make a mistake now I just go for a kill on that next shot.”
“This is the first time we’ve struggled with the idea of passing pressure, and that’s something that’s hard to simulate in practice even though we have some strong servers,” McDermott added. “We can’t run our offense without being able to pass the ball better.
“But second place is not too shabby. I think it’s a great stepping stone for us.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.