By Randy Whalen
Special to Illprepvb.com
Ellie Kurpeikis was born to play volleyball.
The daughter of Mother McAuley graduate and 1994 Sun-Times Player of the Year Jeanine Szczesniak, Kurpeikis always knew where her athletic future lie.
“I’ve always pretty much played volleyball,” Kurpeikis said. “My mom played, and I didn’t think twice about it. When I was young, I saw my mom play in some adult leagues, so I just took it and started playing. I’ve never stopped.”
But when it came time to select a high school, Kurpeikis had a decision to make — follow in her mom’s footsteps and attend Mother McAuley, or play for the other South Side powerhouse just down the street. She chose the latter.
“McAuley was in the picture,” Kurpeikis said. “It was between the two schools. I shadowed at both schools, but I knew I wanted to go to Marist and I could not be happier. My mom was fine with that.”
Jeanine Kurpeikis was indeed OK with her daughter’s decision, pointing out that Marist now admits girls, an option that was unavailable during the ‘90s.
“I always said, ‘It’s your choice. Do what is best for you,’” Jeanine said. “Back in my day, there was only one choice. Now there are two great programs. But I wanted her to create her own legacy and do what was best for her.
“I see why she chose (Marist). There’s a great rivalry between the two schools now, and that makes things exciting around here.”
Ellie is the oldest of three children, all girls. The middle daughter, Jessica, is a freshman at Marist and plays rightside hitter. The youngest, Maggie, is in sixth grade and is an outside hitter. All three Kurpeikis girls play club at Michio Chicago Volleyball Academy.
“The only thing that was certain is that they were going to be involved in something,” Jeanine said. “We gave them a choice. We did not care what their decision was.
“My husband, Chris, played football at Michigan, and we’re a sports family,” mom added. “Jessica is also an excellent swimmer, but recently told us she wants to concentrate on volleyball. The girls have grown up around sports.”
Of course, that includes Ellie, who is a 6-foot-2 inch middle hitter. Being that tall, was basketball an option for her?
“I played basketball all through grammar school,” Ellie said. “Then, I wanted to play as a freshman at Marist. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t. But I always knew I would play volleyball in college, so I just stuck with that.”
Ellie has committed to play next season at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“They reached out to me,” Ellie said. “I went to a camp there and went on a visit a year ago. It just felt like home, and I could see myself there.”
Marist graduated its top three attackers from last fall’s IHSA Class 4A third-place finisher, so when the delayed high school volleyball season begins in February, Ellie will be expected to assume a bigger role on the court.
“Ellie has come a long way for us, and I can’t wait to see the impact she could potentially make after some huge strides physically and mentally this offseason,” said Marist coach Jordan Vidovic said.
“We have really worked on rounding out her game, and being able to utilize her size more and enhancing her court awareness to score points,” he added. “Her leadership will be a key for us this upcoming season.”
Marist has won its final match of the season each year Ellie has been in the program, Including state championships her freshman year, when she watched from the stands, and her sophomore season when she was up on the varsity for the tournament but didn’t play.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Ellie said. “Just to be able to learn from the two middles in front of me, Mattie McCabe and Abby Callahan, was amazing. I was able to absorb what they taught and take it with me.”
As a junior last season, Ellie moved into the starting lineup and finished second on the team with 81 blocks while contributing 113 kills.
With state tournaments limited to a single round of localized geographic competition this fall, however, Ellie fears she and the RedHawks will not have the opportunity to end their season in the state finals at Redbird Arena in Normal.
“I would be disappointed if we didn’t have a state tournament, especially my senior year,” she said. “But I’m hoping for the best.”
By Randy Whalen