Skyhawks Goin’ to Phoenix Again!
A long day, and a long season, of volleyball came down to one match for Sauk at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.
The Skyhawks, after splitting matches against Moraine Valley and McHenry at the Region IV tournament, faced a do-or-die match against Waubonsee.
Win, and a trip to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament awaited. Lose, and it was go home, say goodbye to the sophomores, and begin preparing for next season.
Sauk, which had needed four games to win at Waubonsee in early October, played what head coach Jay Howell termed was probably its best match of the year in rolling to a 25-16, 25-22, 25-23 victory. Kiarra Harris put down 20 kills, Tressa Schuler had 14 kills and 11 digs, and Kayci Howell dished 24 assists in the match.
“Everyone did their job,” coach Howell said. “We had 47 kills and less than 10 hitting errors. That kind of hitting percentage tells you our passing was on, the hitters were on, and the setters were putting the ball where it needed to be.”
Making the match even sweeter is that it came on the heels of a 25-16, 25-6, 25-19 loss to McHenry, a decision that could have sent the Skyhawks into an irreversible tailspin. “We just came back with a vengeance,” sophomore outside hitter Shiela Browning said, “and it was like, ‘We’re going to go.’”
“They showed a lot of mental toughness after losing to McHenry, who has been rated in the top 10 all year,” Howell said. “That showed me a lot in that last match of the day.”
The Skyhawks (33-8) made their first-ever appearance the NJCAA nationals a year ago, and welcomed back a strong sophomore class that included setters Kayci Howell and Haley McAuliffe, hitters Harris, Brooke Williams and Browning, and defensive specialist Jordan Wilken. It took some time for the sophomores to mesh with the incoming freshmen, but eventually, Sauk became a well-oiled machine.
“In the beginning we were kind of timid,” Browning said. “The sophomores, our whole team was super close last year. At the beginning of the year this year, we were a little standoffish, because we didn’t know how everybody worked. Now, we click like crazy, and it’s great.” “We knew from the beginning that we were a good team,” Williams added, “and if we played together, we’d be hard to beat.”
Howell beefed up his team’s schedule, with an eye toward peaking at the end. Five of their losses came in tournament play at Lincoln Land, Parkland and Illinois Central – the first year the Skyhawks have competed in those events. They lost to Lincoln Land three times this season, and once each to ICC and Parkland – which is 53-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
“One of the things we took away from the national tournament last year is that with our schedule, we didn’t really see that caliber of play, so we wanted to step up our schedule,” Howell said. “It comes down to I knew we had a strong team, and I wanted to test us. It’s been good for us. It certainly allowed us to get through the region, and whether it will help us at nationals, we’ll see.”
The 16-team national tournament will be held Nov. 19-21 in the Phoenix (Ariz.) College gymnasium. Pairings will be determined later this week, and each team is guaranteed two matches.
Sauk went 1-2 at the national tournament a year ago. Working together and communicating will be the keys for this year’s team to have a successful run, according to Browning. “It’s a loud gym,” Browning said. “There’s two games going on at the same time, everyone’s cheering, and we just have to keep the communication up, and stay extremely positive.”
NJCAA Division II national tournament phoenixcollege.edu/volleyball/njcaa-tournament
When: Nov. 19-21
Where: Phoenix, Ariz.
By the numbers:
Kills: Tressa Schuler, 468; Kiarra Harris, 440
Assists: Kayci Howell, 715; Haley McAuliffe, 616
Digs: Chelsi Blair, 472; Jordan Wilken, 325
Blocks: Erin Greene, 179; Brooke Williams, 107