Despite suffering through plenty of dysfunctional moments last fall, Evanston’s girls volleyball team wasn’t quite as bad as a 13-24 won-loss record would suggest.

Second year head coach Liz Brieva knows that if the program is going to turn around, it will be because the Wildkits start winning the close ones.

Too many times in 2018, ETHS would battle an opponent to a 20-20 tie and then stall and lose as the other team reached 25 points. The losses mounted and took their toll, but the Wildkits did manage to win 5 of their last 9 matches.

Seven seniors departed from that squad and now Brieva hopes the younger squad members can learn to find a winning formula, starting with Monday night’s season opener at Maine East.

Brieva believes the physical ability is there. Now, she has the Kits working on the mental toughness it takes to prevail down the stretch in a tight match.

“We have many, many talented players,” Brieva said. “One of our assistant coaches, Denise Rossa, has created what she calls a “Line of Fire” workout for the girls to do every day. It’s 10 minutes of heavy duty conditioning every day for all levels of the program, and it’s all about being disciplined and building a better mindset to help them push through the difficult stretches they’ll face.

“You have to be able to fight through it when you get stuck in a tough rotation, or when the other team is serving you tough. Mental toughness is important, and at this point it seems that all of the girls are really buying in.”

Brieva turned to younger players — promoting then-sophomores Izzi Darrah and Kate Van Ert — to the varsity — in the final month of the 2018 campaign and their efforts helped make ETHS more competitive. Now they’ll assume primary roles along with returning setter Rileigh Farragher, a senior who will likely run the offense again this year in a 6-2 set along with Van Ert. Farragher will play her collegiate ball at Tufts University.

Darrah is a 6-foot middle hitter with potential, one of six juniors who hope to make a smooth transition to the varsity level. Help will also come from Lexi Alanguilan, Ellie Peterson and Kennedy Freeman, plus varsity veterans Mary Henthorn and Emma Hinterhouser.

The player to watch, however, is 5-foot-7 senior Aliyah Valentine. Since there’s not much of a future in the sport for an outside hitter at that size — that was Valentine’s position last year on the ETHS varsity and she still plays club volleyball out there — she’s shifting into defensive mode as a defensive specialist and won a battle with 6 other players for the coveted libero spot.

“We had 7 girls trying out for that libero spot and we even had to cut two seniors. It was a very challenging and stressful tryout,” said Brieva. “But Aliyah was the best passer in the gym and really pulled away from the others.

“She’s such a smart player. She anticipates well, she’s a great athlete and her volleyball IQ is very high. She was a (starting) setter for the freshmen and sophomore teams, but for us, the best place for her is at libero.

“I think this year that our experience is the No. 1 thing we have going for us. They’re working very hard, and they’re working very well together, and I think we’ve got a very strong team. This is a very determined group of girls who are high achievers on the court and in the classroom.”

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

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