By Phil Brozynski
Edwardsville is making the first of back-to-back visits to the Chicago area this weekend while competing in the Scholastic Cup tournament sponsored by St. Charles East and hosted by the Great Lakes Volleyball Center in Aurora.
Next weekend, the Tigers will be back in town to play in the Fall Harvest Festival hosted by Plainfield Central.
But Chicago is not the destination that is foremost in the Tigers’ thoughts. They’re looking a little further south of Chicago and well east of Edwardsville … say, Normal, Illinois?
It has been 11 years since Edwardsville last appeared in Redbird Arena. The last two postseasons, the Tigers have been derailed in the sectional semifinals – first by O’Fallon in 2018, and then by Belleville Althoff in 2019.
Four-year starting libero Kaitlyn Conway has been witness to both of those losses.
“We’ve had pretty good teams, but it just seems that in the postseason we get into a rut and lose a game that we shouldn’t have,” she said. ”It really stinks because it all comes down to that game.
“I’m really hoping that this year we can go far with the girls and the connection that we have,” Conway added.
Edwardsville coach Heather Ohlau, who succeeded Lisa Orlet in 2020 and led the Tigers to an 8-0 record in the spring, said it will take consistency for the Tigers to break out of the decade-long postseason drought that also includes supersectional losses in 2011, 2012 and 2017.
“We have a strong senior class,” she said. “We have nine seniors. They’re thirsty for it. But it’s all about that consistency and playing at that high level and that high expectation, and just maintaining that throughout the rest of season.”
Another player who has been part of the previous two postseason entries is 6-foot 2 outside hitter Gabby Saye. Saye, an uncommitted senior, leads the Tigers with 161 kills entering this weekend’s tournament.
“We come here for the competition, to see what teams up north look like, to get ready for postseason,” she said. “For us this season, it comes down to continuing to work hard and creating that bond that will make us stronger.”
Saye said one of the biggest differences in her play this year is her development as a leader.
“I’ve learned to be more vocal and help my teammates while helping myself,” she said. “That’s my biggest improvement.”
Other players who have stepped up for Edwardsville this season are 5-10 senior outside hitter Emma Gardner, who is second on the team in kills, and 5-8 senior setter Lexie Griffin.
“I know the girls look to Gabby and Kaitlyn in those tight situations to step up and be those leaders, but Lexi and Emma have also played key roles in the success of this program,” Ohlau said.
“So having those players on the court the majority of the time helps relax the less experienced players. The younger players know they’ve got that support system behind them.”
There is also another factor that could play a key role in Edwardsville’s postseason success this fall.
“I really think it’s all come down to trusting each other and having fun,” Conway said. “We play better than when we’re having fun, and we’re not going to go anywhere without that.”
THEY SAID IT: “We come up here to play some people who are new … play teams that don’t really know a lot about us. It was fun to be able to gameplan and make some adjustments while we were down quite a bit in the first set (against St. Charles East). I really saw us make some changes and push back toward the end of the first set, so I was really proud of the girls to not give up. We haven’t really been pushed like that in a while. I wasn’t sure how we would respond. I was excited to see some players step up in key situations.” — Normal West coach Kelsey Mueller, whose team rallied after dropping the first set to defeat St. Charles East 17-25, 25-21, 25-18.
THEY SAID IT: “I’ve always been a libero. I’ve always been one of smaller girls. I’m not short in the real world, but in the volleyball world I’m pretty short. But I have built a lot more confidence over the years. As a freshman, I was really timid and afraid to make mistakes. I built a lot of confidence since then. I’ve also become an all-around better teammate.” – Edwardsville’s 5-6 libero Kaitlyn Conway.
THEY SAID IT: “I wasn’t worried about her arm. I was worried about her knees and all the jumping she was doing.” – Benet coach Brad Baker, who pulled sophomore outside hitter Ava Novak off the service line after she served 15 consecutive points in the first set and 10 consecutive points in the second set of a 25-12, 25-10 victory over Minooka.
THEY SAID IT: “I’m exhausted. I’m sweating over there, and I didn’t do anything” — Normal West coach Kelsey Mueller, after the final point of her team’s three-set win over St. Charles East.
ON THE RECORD: Benet Academy (21-3), Normal West (23-3), Edwardsville (18-4), Naperville North (17-4).
By Phil Brozynski