‘Underdog’ Neuqua Valley wins Tiger Classic at Wheaton Warrenville South

“Underdog.”

“Underdog” was an animated TV series that ran om NBC from 1964 until 1973 about Shoeshine Boy, whose alter ego battled crime.

“Underdog” is also a role that Neuqua Valley’s 6-foot-7 setter Kevin Kauling and his teammates relish.

“We’re always trying to prove we’re the underdog,” Kauling said. “We came into this tournament (The Tiger Classic at Wheaton Warrenville South) seeded second in our pool and 10th overall.

“No one expected us to reach the championship match,” he added. “But we truly believed we’re one of the top teams, one of the top programs in the state of Illinois. We’re just trying to go out there and prove it.”

The Wildcats (7-0) did more than exceed expectations Saturday. They knocked off Lincoln-Way East, ranked No. 1 in the Illprepvb.com rankings, 25-17, 22-25, 25-18, in the tournament semifinals, and beat Lake Park 25-16, 25-18 in the championship match.

Outside hitter Jeremy Grove, who had 20 kills against Lincoln-Way East and 18 against Lake Park, was named the tournament MVP. Kauling, an all-tournament selection, had 31 assists, 3 kills and 2 aces against the Griffins and 23 assists and 3 aces in the title match.

“We carried a lot of the momentum from the Lincoln-Way East match into the Lake Park match,” Kauling said. “We had a lot of confidence because we took out the No. 1 team in the state.

“But we don’t want to have that confidence,” he added. “Our motto this year is ‘Underdogs.’ Everyone doesn’t think we’re good, so we want to go out there and prove who we are.”

Lake Park coach Brian Fischer was convinced.

“That’s a tough team, especially with that setter,” Fischer said. “He moves the ball pretty well. They got a lot of solo blocks on us just because of his ability to make reads and see what we’re doing in the other side the net. It was really impressive.

“I thought we battled well, but we also have stuff to work on which is fun for us,” he added. “We’re going to be hungry, looking for more. I think it was a good showing for us … our first tournament, our first matches. I really can’t complain about the day.”

Lake Park (4-1) got 9 kills from Nick Martinski, 5 kills from Jordan Haigh, 17 assists from Robert Sampson and 11 digs from Nicolas Carzoli. Mark Borghesi added 6 kills and a block and Will Hofner had 4 kills for Neuqua Valley.

The Wildcats reached the semifinals against Lincoln-Way East (6-1) by using a late 5-0 run to rally from a 21-19 deficit in Game 1 against Barrington (7-3). Neuqua Valley defeated the Broncos 25-22, 25-14.  

“We hit negative for the match,” said Barrington coach Rob Ridenour, whose team finished sixth after beating Wheaton Warrenville South 25-18, 25-18 and falling 25-23, 27-25 to Marist (10-2) in the fifth-place match.

“Quite frankly, I think we were trying too hard,” he added. “We’ll get better at that. We have to find that calm confident spot. We did a nice job in serve-receive, we just hit a lot of balls out. It’s hard to compete at that level when you hit a lot of balls out.”

Lake Park advanced to the championship by stunning Brother Rice (11-2) in its semifinal.

“We had more errors than kills,” Brother Rice coach Dan Dwyer said. “We had a tough time with (Lake Park’s 6-7 outside hitter Nick) Martinski. Even out of system, he was doing a nice job putting the ball away against us.

“Their two deep float servers were doing more damage to our serve-receive than their jump-servers,” he added. “They took us out of system a good portion of the time. It came back to haunt us, but we’ll be back.”

So will Lincoln-Way East, which beat Brother Rice 25-18, 24-26, 25-23 in the third-place match.

Meanwhile, Lincoln-Way West (9-3), which lost to Neuqua Valley 25-21, 22-25, 25-16 in pool play Wednesday, defeated Downers Grove South 25-14, 22-25, 25-13 to win the Silver bracket.

The Warriors should only get better when 5-11 junior outside hitter Ben Pluskota returns from a fractured thumb he injured during the club season in the next week or two.

“He sees the doctor on Monday,” Lincoln-Way West coach Jodi Frigo said. “He’s completed all his physical therapy. The doctor just has to clear him.”

Naperville Central (9-2), which dropped both of its pool play matches Wednesday, bounced back to win the Bronze bracket by defeating Hilliard Darby 25-16, 28-30, 27-25.

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