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Uncertainty surrounds the new era of Evanston girls volleyball that began when former ETHS star Mallory Thelander was named the head coach of the program this summer.

And that uncertainty exists not just because Thelander is assuming the role of a varsity head coach for the first time, succeeding the 10-year run of Pam MacPherson.

Thelander’s curious to see how her first team will progress. Some of those answers will come on Tuesday when the Wildkits host Maine East at 6 p.m. in their season debut.

With no returning starters from a team that finished 16-20 last year, Thelander doesn’t know who her team’s go-to hitters will be yet. She doesn’t know how the Kits will respond with a match on the line. Who can deliver the big kill, the big block, the dig that keeps a rally alive, or the serve that has to stay in-bounds to keep the momentum going?

The Kits will all get opportunities to gain valuable experience with tournaments at Libertyville and New Trier the first two weekends of the season.

And if all of the  question marks still haven’t been answered by that point, Thelander is confident that her team’s energy will carry them through the rough spots.

“It’s very important that we get off to a good start, based on the fact that not many of them have any varsity experience, because having them play with confidence is very important,” Thelander said. “I really like the energy level they’ve shown me so far (during summer league competition and pre-season workouts). We do have hitters who can play multiple positions, too, but we still haven’t seen most of them competing at the varsity level yet.”

Evanston’s versatility will definitely be a plus, especially for the “bigs” on the roster. No matter which combinations of lineups Thelander sends out to the floor, this will be one of the biggest teams the Kits have fielded with 6-foot-1 sophomore Rosemary Gibbons, 6-0 junior Clara Siebert, 6-0 junior Maggie Sereika and 5-11 junior Claire Berne all capable of playing either middle or outside hitter.

High school players are usually typecast as middles or outside hitters and only switch spots in emergency situations. But Thelander says she feels comfortable plugging in those four hitters in any front row slot and that will make the Wildkits difficult to match up against.

Siebert, one of the squad’s most improved players, has an extensive background in the middle but has developed the skills to take on a featured role in the offense. She’ll likely open the season at outside hitter, with Berne on the right side and 5-9 senior Yngride Jean-Philippe — an exceptional blocker for her size — in the middle.

“We’ll see how it works with Clara at outside hitter,” said Thelander. “Coach (Mike) Hulett tells me tht she’s improved significantly since last year, even though she didn’t play for us this summer. She moves well, she passes well and she just has so many skills. It’s pretty rare at the high school level for a middle to play elsewhere, but we think she can be a pretty good one. I didn’t have many expectations for her coming in, but she’s a very strong player mentally and physically.

“Our lineups may change a lot after the first two weeks, and so long as they remain open to any changes, I think they’ll get comfortable with each other and adjust.  We’ve also talked about how if we’re struggling, we want them to be able to switch things up and give other teams new looks. That’s the kind of thing that can completely change the momentum in a match, and I think they understand that.”

Senior Caitlin Sweeney came off the bench last year and will continue her role as a defensive specialist, subbing for the bigs in the back row. Thelander has also penciled in sophomore Patty Duffy as a likely libero.

The real battle for playing time will come at the setter position, where senior Molly Conover, junior Holly Desmond and junior Samantha Kaiser are neck-and-neck at this point. They’ll all get the chance to run the offense and Thelander hopes one will emerge sooner rather than later as the squad’s emotional leader.

Help will also come from seniors Laurianne Pene and Reed Frazel.

“You don’t usually have three setters on a team, and it will be interesting to see if one of them will really take charge for us,” the coach pointed out.  “Setters  have to have skills, and they have to be able to run the court in pressure situations. We’ve talked with all three of them about how usually a setter wants to be fair and use every hitter, but that if one player is on fire for us, they need to keep feeding her until the other team can stop that hitter.
“They all have good skills. We’ll see how they develop.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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