MINOOKA – Going into the season, Minooka’s girls volleyball team aimed to make history.
It happened. For the first time, Minooka will step onto the Redbird Arena court and play in a state semifinal match.
The Indians accomplished their goal, but now they have a new one.
“Our expectation is to win state,” junior outside hitter Alli Papesh said. “We had a goal to make it to state. Now that we achieved it, we are focused on winning Friday and carrying that momentum into Saturday. We want to bring the first-ever state championship trophy to Minooka.”
The biggest key of getting the chance to achieve that goal is by performing well in the Class 4A semifinal match against Stevenson (32-7) at 7 p.m. Throughout the season, Minooka has lived by the phrase, ‘One game at a time.’
Nothing has changed.
Minooka has to stop Stevenson’s Jori Radtke to succeed in the semis. Radtke has 527 kills, which is almost twice as many as its next leading hitter.
Stopping an outside hitter is a task that Indians libero Taylor Baranski is good at. With her 551 digs, she has more than twice as many as any Stevenson player. It also gives her pin hitters – Papesh, Rocky Perinar and Holly Bonde – chances to put the ball away.
Middles Olivia Klank and Sammi Hermann also block better than the Stevenson middles, so on defense, Minooka is more dominant. The Indians have to play to that advantage.
Stevenson’s advantage is Radtke and program experience. The Patriots have played in the finals three times.
Program experience is also something that Mother McAuley knows all about. The Mighty Macs, who have 15 state titles, will be facing Niles West, who is making its first appearance at state.
Niles West (28-8) has had a successful season behind outside hitters Kaila Johanson and Natalia Pehar. Pehar has 353 kills, while Johanson is close behind with 342. Bianca Tomuta has good defensive numbers with 397 digs.
The Mighty Macs are led by outside hitter Charley Niego and Katie O’Connell. Niego boasts 470 kills and 452 digs while O’Connell has 316 kills and 414 digs. Libero Emma Reilly has 519 digs.
McAuley should come away with a ‘W’ since it has made a name for itself as a dominant program. It is one of the teams that is always mentioned when people talk about Illinois high school volleyball.
This weekend, the Indians want to prove that names don’t matter to them. It’s all about believing in their talent and making their program a top dog for the first time.
“Teams might underestimate us because we have never been on the board,” Minooka coach Carrie Prosek said. “I have played and coached in the area and the teams have stayed the same: Mother McAuley, Joliet Catholic, Benet, Wheaton St. Francis, Normal Community. You know those names as powerhouses.
“Making it to state is a huge stepping stone for our program. We have always played competitive volleyball, but it was getting over that hump to make it to state. Now we have to believe.”
Senior setter Brooklyn Bachmann has been on this stage before in the 3-point competition in basketball and with cross country. She plans on being strong for her team this weekend, since she has been a leader for the Indians this entire year.
Minooka is overall young in age. The girls are not young varsity players, however. Papesh has been a three-year starter while Bachmann, Perinar and Holly Bonde all started last year.
The players know that they’re going to get nervous. That happens to all teams when they make it to that stage.
“To make it to state, you have to be very good,” Bachmann said. “All four teams are, and we have to remind ourselves that we are just as talented. We have to have each others backs and play for each other. When good teams get down and don’t, that’s when strong teams fall early. If we get in trouble, we have to play for the girl next to us. That’s when we play our best, when we play for each other.”
The Indians have one last thing on their side.
This past week, Minooka teacher and coach Mark Smith passed away after battling cancer. The girls wrote on a volleyball “Minooka Smith Strong.” The game is no longer just for them. It’s for their whole school and community.
“We are going into state playing for each other,” Papesh said. “It is something that we have been doing all year, but now we are also going in playing for Mr. Smith. He is inspiration to every member of our school and especially to our team. This is something that was really want to do for him.”