Way-too-early look at some of the best girls high school teams in each class in 2019

Can Marist become the first team in IHSA to repeat in Class 4A? That will be one of the storylines to follow during the 2019 Illinois girls high school volleyball season. (Photos by Dave Ruggles)

Food for thought…

The 2019 Illinois high school girls volleyball season doesn’t kick off until August 26. But it’s never too early to speculate who some of the best teams in each class will be.

A few notable schools have changed classes in 2019 thanks to the IHSA’s new classification system and the success factor, the latter affecting two schools this fall – Belleville Althoff (up to 4A) and St. Thomas More (up to 3A).

Schools affected by the enrollment change this fall include Lemont, which drops down into Class 3A. So do Crystal Lake Central and Prairie Ridge. Quincy Notre Dame drops down into 2A, as do Breese Mater Dei, Montini and Monmouth-Roseville. Dakota drops down into 1A.

Meanwhile, 2018 state qualifier Hartsburg-Emden stays put in 1A. Where else can the Stags go? Hartsburg-Emden only has 67 students.

In case you were wondering, the new enrollment breakdowns are as follows: 1A 0-299, 2A 299.01-697, 3A 697.01-1635, 4A 1635.01 – up.

Illprepvb.com will release its 2019 preseason rankings before the first ball is served on August 26. Every week this season, rather than rank 25 teams regardless of class, we will rank the top 10 teams in each class.

But for now, here is a way-too-early look at 10 schools in each class that should make noise this season – or even on Saturday, November 16, at Redbird Arena in Normal.

Belleville Althoff is one of just two schools affected by the IHSA’s “success factor” in 2019. Despite an enrollment of only 382 students, the Crusaders will compete in Class 4A.

Class 4A

1. Marist (39-3)
— No team has three-peated in Class 4A since the IHSA adopted the four-class system in 2007. St. Francis won three straight 3A titles from 2012-2014 then won a big school title in 2015, but by playing in 3A, they avoided juggernauts in Benet (2012, 2014) and Mother McAuley (2013). So can Marist, which welcomes back 6-foot-2 outside hitter/setter Camryn Hannah, 5-10 senior outside hitter Maddie Arundel and 5-11 senior outside Avery Jedry, become the first 4A school to three-peat? “We’ll see,” Hannah said. “I think we can do it. Last year, we worked so hard to get here. But I think this year we all knew that this was possible and I think we worked really hard for it, and it was special to be together and do it again.”

2. Benet (36-6) – The Redwings were one of the youngest teams in Illinois last season with three sophomores – 6-0 outside hitter and Penn State recruit Rachel Muisenga, 5-10 outside hitter Kyla Kenney (team-high 281 kills) and 6-1 middle hitter Caitlin Wepfer — and a freshman – 6-1 middle hitter Ann Marie Remmes — in the starting rotation. Muisenga will likely move to setter this fall while Wepfer should be given the nod at her natural position of outside hitter. Six-foot senior Maeve Nelligan is expected to fill the second middle slot, and 6-foot senior and University of Illinois recruit Sophie Gregus, who was slowed by injury early in the 2018 season, should provide another weapon at the net. Meanwhile, 5-5 senior libero and Notre Dame recruit Hattie Monson will return to anchor the back row.

3. Belleville Althoff (37-5) – Ah, what price success? Despite an enrollment of 382 students, Belleville Althoff has been reclassified as Class 4A in 2019 thanks to the IHSA’s success factor. Fortunately, Tony Minder’s bunch won’t lack for experience when they make the leap. Five-foot-9 “do-it-all” Katie Wemhoener (250 kills, 375 digs in 2019) has appeared at Redbird Arena every year since her freshman season and will try to make it four in a row this fall. Six-foot-1 senior Karinna Gall (458 kills), who will be Althoff’s primary weapon, will be seeking her third straight appearance in the state finals. Also back this fall will be 5-4 defensive whiz Abby Lanter, 5-6 senior backrow player Mia Orlet, 5-9 senior setter Mary Wessel and 5-10 middle blocker Nicky Hampton

4. Edwardsville (23-13) – The Tigers took a few lumps last season, but what did you expect from a team that featured three freshman, eight sophomores and two juniors and just one senior on the roster? Head coach Lisa Orlet will welcome back 6-2 junior middle hitter Storm Suhre (237 kills, 24 aces, 22 blocks), 5-11 junior setter Morgan Tularco (807 assists, 207 digs), 5-7 junior outside hitter Alexa Harris (315 kills, 306 digs), 5-11 senior outside hitter Maddie Isringhausen (177 kills), 5-10 junior Rhianna Huebner, 5-6 sophomore Kaitlyn Conway and 5-6 junior Jillian Allen from a team that lost to O’Fallon, 25-18, 25-20, in a Class 4A sectional semifinal.

5. Mother McAuley (24-14) –
You just can’t keep a good program down long, and while McAuley’s youngsters got off to a rough start in 2018, by the end of the season they proved they were a team to look out for in 2019. The graduation of setter Nancy Kane will be felt, but coach Jen DeJarld will welcome back 5-10 junior outside hitter Connie LeBel (229 kills), 6-foot junior Molly McDermott (140 kills), 5-8 senior libero Grace Niego (458 digs, 38 aces), 5-9 senior outside hitter Alena Pedroza (165 kills), 6-1 junior Molly Boyd and 5-9 senior setter Emily Weber (299 assists). The Mighty Macs finished third at Autumnfest last fall before losing to Marist in a sectional semifinal.

6. Waubonsie Valley (24-14) – The Warriors pushed Benet in a sectional semifinal last fall before falling, 25-23, 25-21. Loaded with young talent, the Warriors should be poised to make another long tournament run in 2019. Tops among the returnees is 5-11 senior setter/outside hitter Melissa Walden, who was named to the all-tournament teams at both the Wheaton Warrenville South Tiger Classic and Autumnfest at Glenbard East. Walden led Waubonsie in assists and aces and was second in kills. Also back should be impressive 6-1 senior outside hitter Gabi Croll, 5-10 senior Elenzie France, 5-9 senior outside hitter Trinity Evans and 6-0 junior setter/rightside Jessica Molina.

7. Plainfield North (21-14) – The Tigers faced a major setback before the 2018 season even started when 6-3 junior middle Gretchen Ketelhut was involved in a serious car accident and sat out the entire season. But Plainfield North will be back – a year older, wiser and healthier. Six-foot-2 sophomore outside hitter Ella Wrobel should be even better after a season that saw her compile 290 kills, 25 blocks, 243 digs and 34 aces, Senior libero Mekenzie Smith contributed 423 digs, 31 assists, 20 aces and passed at a 2.10 clip. Also back should be senior setter Anna Gawron, 6-0 junior middle hitter Ariel Amaya, and senior outside hitters Ali Jansen and Lily Summers. “Next year should be fun with this group,” said coach Matt Slechta.

8. Lockport (28-10)
– Lockport came on strong at the end of last season, winning its first regional title since 2011 by upsetting Plainfield Central before running afoul of Naperville North in the sectional. Back for head coach Nick Mraz should be 6-2 senior opposite side hitter Becca Oldendorf (199 kills), 5-11 senior middle blocker Leena Ajibola and 5-10 senior outside hitter Taylor Morgan (210 kills, 20 blocks, 127 digs and 18 aces). “Taylor was a leader not only on the court but off as her positivity was infectious when her team needed it most,” Mraz said. “Becca was our most versatile player. When we needed a big kill, we would turn to her and more often than not, she would get us the termination.”

9. Libertyville (20-17) — The Wildcats started 6-10 but reached the regional finals before exiting the 2018 IHSA tournament with a loss to Crystal Lake Central for the second consecutive season. Libertyville featured three underclassmen among their top four attackers and a junior setter. Head coach Greg Loika will welcome back 6-0 junior setter Peyton O’Brien (516 assists, 25 aces), 5-11 junior outside hitter Kellie Hopper (177 kills), 6-0 senior outside hitter Hope Moody, 5-11 senior middle blocker Cassidy Jones (98 kills) and 5-10 junior outside hitter Ella Schaffnit (175 kills). The biggest loss is in the back row, where Loika must replace libero Jenn Formica and her 364 digs.

10. Wheaton Warrenville South (22-10)
– The Tigers were beaten by Glenbard East in the regional finals, but not before handing St. Charles North a rare loss to close out the 2018 regular season.  Head coach Bill Schreier will welcome back several key players from last year’s team including 6-2 setter/opposite hitter and two-year starter Zayna Meyer (357 assists, 217 kills, 32 aces, 119 digs, 72 solo blocks) who was named all-tournament at the Illprep.com Crosstown Showdown. Also returning are 6-foot senior setter/opposite Sarah Burau (461 assists, 139 kills, 42 aces, 128 digs, 33 blocks), an all-tournament selection at Autumnfest, 6-2 senior middle hitter Kaleigh Ammons and 5-6 sophomore libero Darby Harris.

Others (in alphabetical order): Minooka, Naperville Central, New Trier, Plainfield Central, Shepard, Sandburg, West Aurora.

Allie Trame and St. Thomas More will find themselves competing in Class 3A this fall thanks to the IHSA’s “success factor.”

Class 3A

1. Sterling
(41-1) – The success factor may have booted Belleville Althoff up to Class 4A, but Sterling, with an enrollment a shade more than 1,000 this year, isn’t going anywhere. And neither are junior twins Brooklyn (455 kills, 227 digs, 32 aces and 21 blocks this season) and Breelyn (552 assists, 261 kills) Borum. Neither is libero and Nebraska recruit Lexi Rodriguez, who had more than 600 digs in 2018, and 5-9 senior outside hitter Grace Gould. Five-foot-11 junior middle blocker Kierra Collins will benefit from another off-season of work. The Warriors may miss Josi Borum’s leadership, but they should have more than enough talent to hoist another state banner in 2019.

2. Joliet Catholic (28-14)Bella Ray, Jillian Gray, Ryan Hinshaw and a maybe? Six-foot-2 senior middle hitter Bella Ray plugged up the middle nicely in 2018 for head coach Chris Scheibe, whose teams have brought home nine trophies during her 19-year tenure. Ray finished the season with 260 kills and more than 100 blocks. She had 8 kills in Joliet Catholic’s semifinal loss to Sterling. Gray, a 6-foot junior, had 247 kills while Hinshaw dealt the rock 796 times. But the biggest wildcard for the Angels is 6-2 junior outside hitter Emily Wilson, who did not play after September 11 due to injury. Her loss, more than anything else, derailed JCA’s title hopes. Wilson’s return to the lineup this season may help bring a championship trophy to Joliet.

Nazareth Academy (31-5) – Raise your hand if you thought 2018 was Nazareth’s year to make a serious state tournament run. We did, too. But it didn’t happen. The Roadrunners were stunned by St. Francis in a sectional semifinal, 25-20, 24-26, 25-19. Nazareth’s only other losses in 2018 were to Marist (twice), Marian Catholic and Minooka. But the Roadrunners should be able to make another run in 2019 behind 6-2 senior middle blocker and Brigham Young recruit Leilani Dodson, 5-11 senior setter Ella Sandt, 5-11 junior outside hitter Izzy Decker – the younger sister of Villanova’s Emma Decker — sophomore libero Gillian Grimes and Lyons transfer sophomore setter Katie Hurta.

4. Crystal Lake Central (31-6) – Anther team benefiting from the IHSA enrollment reconfiguration is Crystal Lake Central, which drops into Class 3A after falling to Prairie Ridge, 25-13, 25-19, in a 4A sectional championship match last fall. It was the third meeting between the schools. The Tigers won the previous two, both in three sets. Head coach Lisa Brunstrum should field another strong title contender in 2019 led by 6-foot senior outside hitter Camryn Hausler, 5-11 junior outside hitter Madeline McCormick, 6-foot senior outside hitter Maddie Blake, 6-2 junior middle blocker Madeline Timmerman and 5-5 senior setter Grace Levin.

5. St. Thomas More (37-5) – The Sabres get bumped up into Class 3A after a couple of dominant years in 2A, but there is enough young talent in coach Stan Bergman’s arsenal to keep St. Thomas More in title contention for at least another year. The Sabers’ biggest weapon remains 6-foot-1 senior middle hitter Allie Trame, who had 17 kills in the Class 2A semifinal win over Nashville and 11 in the title-match loss to Pleasant Plains. The Sabers will have to replace 5-8 senior outside hitter Kayla Brandon (240-plus kills in 2018), but 5-6 sophomore Anna McClure (175 kills, 258 digs), 5-7 junior Maris Green and 5-10 sophomore Caroline Kerr (91 kills, 824 assists, 192 digs) should be able to pick up some of the slack.

6. Lemont (21-16) – There was not a senior to be found on Lemont’s roster in 2018. Coach Chris Zogata will begin her 19th season with a team that could be poised to make some noise. Top returnees are 5-10 senior setter Amy Schwem (625 assists, 79 aces) and 6-0 junior rightside hitter Amanda Rice (274 kills, 33 blocks), who have started every game since their freshman year. Also back will be 5-10 senior outside hitter Ella Pelen (131 kills), 5-7 senior libero/defensive specialist Lea Gaetto​ (127 digs), 5-9 senior outside hitter Nicole Komendant (169 kills) and 5-9 junior outside hitter Hannah Niklewicz. Lemont was 69 students over the 3A threshold in 2018.

7. Charleston (17-18) – Despite being upset by Troy, 25-17, 21-25, 25-12, in the regional, the Trojans improved from 10-21 in 2017 to 17-18 in 2018. Coach Justin Tomaska might expect a similar improvement in 2019 from a young team that lost only two seniors and will likely benefit from another year of seasoning. Among those expected back are 6-foot junior Kat Blase (211 kills), 5-9 senior outside hitter Kaleigh Wilson (183 kills), 5-10 senior outside hitter Kayla Rotramel (66 kills), 5-9 senior outside hitter Rainer Fullermoore, 5-6 senior setter Abby Kallis (622 assists, 68 kills) and 5-8 junior Sydney Bennett (98 kills).

8. Mt. Zion (29-11) –
Mt. Zion loses a superstar in 5-7 setter Ali Vaughn, who recorded 1,042 assists in 2018, ranks third all-time on the IHSA assists list (3.097) and was named the Macon County Player of the Year. Three other seniors graduated from the team that fell to Belleville Althoff, 25-28, 23-25, 25-16, in a Class 3A supersectional, including Dayna Kennedy, Reilly Drake and Kaitlyn Lillpopp. But the cupboard isn’t totally bare for coach Jay McAtee, who will rebuild around 5-9 senior outside hitter Karlee McAtee (308 kills, 27 aces, 297 digs in 2018), 5-10 junior middle hitter Emily Cole (155 kills, 22 aces, 15 blocks, 167 digs) and 5-1 junior libero Caitlyn Maley (348 digs, 29 aces).

9. St. Ignatius (20-17) –
The Wolfpack will miss 5-7 senior defensive specialist Rita Grassano, who was the glue for the team that reached the sectional finals before falling to Whitney Young, 21-25, 25-14, 25-19. But St. Ignatius returns the bulk of its team from 2018 after graduating only two seniors. Among those returning for coach Erik Eastman are 5-9 senior setter Kate Danaher (511 assists, 180 digs), 5-11 senior outside hitter Lauren Brunsvold (180 kills), 5-5 junior libero Maggie Hynes (170 digs) and 5-10 junior outside hitter Makenzie Washington (172 kills). St. Ignatius will face another tough conference campaign against Mother McAuley, St. Francis, Loyola and Montini, but could be a threat come tournament time.

10. St. Francis (25-10) – Yes, the Spartans lost a ton from the team that stunned Nazareth in a Class 3A sectional semifinal and knocked off Montini in the sectional championship before falling to Latin, 25-18, 25-18, in the supersectional. But blessed with another year in Class 3A, can you ever really count out St. Francis? Head coach Lisa Ston will rebuild around three veterans of last year’s team — 6-2 outside hitter Anna Calcagno (226 kills, 81 blocks in 2018), junior middle hitter Olivia Hojnicki (98 kills, 33 blocks) and senior defensive specialist Sierra Zygmunt (161 digs) – and players from highly successful JV and freshman teams including AAU national champion 6-0 senior middle hitter Darlene Zediker.

Others (in alphabetical order): Bloomington, Mahomet-Seymour, Morton, Normal U-High, Rantoul.

Anna Kanilakan and defending champion Pleasant Plains will find themselves in some difficult terrain in Class 2A this fall.

Class 2A

1. Quincy Notre Dame (33-5)
– Bad news for teams in west central Illinois, and probably most of 2A as well. The Raiders drop back into Class 2A after losing to LaSalle-Peru in a Class 3A sectional semifinal in 2018. Notre Dame welcomes back four of its top attackers led by 5-11 senior outside hitter Sydney Hummert, who pounded out 381 kills to go with 29 blocks, 45 aces and 245 digs in 2018. Also back are 5-9 senior opposite hitter Katie Ray (135 kills), 5-9 senior middle blocker Meredith Siebers (85 kills, 35 blocks), 5-8 senior outside hitter Taylor Keck (147 kills, 39 aces, 200 digs) and 5-4 senior setter Maddie Peters (369 assists), who split setting duties in Notre Dame’s 6-2 offense.

2. Breese Mater Dei (33-6) –
More bad news for 2A schools from the IHSA. After claiming two regional titles in three years at the Class 3A level, the Knights drop back down to 2A in 2019. Back from the team that defeated Mascoutah, Breese Central and Murphysboro before losing to Belleville Althoff, 25-16, 25-22, in a 2018 3A sectional championship match are 5-5 senior Cortney Crocker (40 aces, 305 digs), 5-9 senior Lauren Thole (271 kills, 28 aces), 5-8 junior Ariel Strieker (345 assists), and 5-10 senior Morgan Dall (55 blocks).

3. Decatur St. Teresa (29-11) –
After spending some time in Class 2A, the Bulldogs made the most of their return to 1A by reaching the state finals last fall. Along the way, they ended Windsor-Stewardson-Strasburg’s season in the sectional finals. But the 1.65 multiplier has gotten the better of St. Teresa, which returns to 2A in 2019. Among the returnees for coach Brad Dalton are 5-11 senior setter/opposite hitter Lexie Huck (211 kills, 39 blocks, 41 aces, 447 assists and 249 digs), 5-8 senior outside hitter Abby Robinson (199 kills, 249 digs), 5-11 junior middle hitter Caleigh Craft, 5-9 junior middle hitter Addison Newbon and 5-10 sophomore outside Valerie Nutakor.

4. Monmouth-Roseville (26-10)
– This team has the potential to be the school’s best since the consolidation of Monmouth and Roseville in 2005 (The Roseville Panthers went 35-5 and qualified for state in 2004, and the Monmouth Zipperettes went 22-3 and reached the Class A quarterfinals in 1979). And after spending several years in Class 3A because of its borderline enrollment (530 students), the Titans are back into 2A in 2019. That’s good news for a team that figures to be powered by 6-foot senior middle hitter and University of Missouri-Kansas City recruit Carly Gillen (393 kills, 69 solo blocks in 2018), who had 12 kills in a 26-24, 25-16 loss at Quincy Notre Dame, seniors Delaney Woodard and Lily Cundiff and sisters junior Ryley and senior Sully Huston.

5. Montini (29-6)
– A year late? It would have been interesting to see what Montini might have done in Class 2A last year with outside hitter Caitlyn Meeks, middle hitter Johanna Kingsfield and libero Joslyn Boyer, who were instrumental in leading the Broncos to a Class 3A sectional final. But Steve Dowjotas & Co. will get a shot at the 2A crown in 2019, thanks to the IHSA’s enrollment restructuring. And the Broncos won’t enter 2A empty-handed, either. Back from last year’s team will be 5-10 sophomore outside hitter Paige Pickering, 5-7 opposite Julia Marciniak, 5-8 setter Tess Noonan, 5-11 sophomore middle Maddie Kasalis, and Boyer’s younger sisters, defensive specialists Kylie and sophomore Reeghan.

6. Orion (33-5) – The perennial power tucked away in northwest central Illinois, which finished second in Class 2A as recently as 2015 and has won 30 or more matches in 10 of the last 14 years, captured its eighth consecutive regional title last year and reached the sectional semifinals before falling to Lena-Winslow, 25-17, 25-17. Back for another run at Redbird from last year’s team are senior outside hitters 5-10 Sarah Jacobsen and 5-11 Mackenzie Grafton, who play club for Platform Elite out of Davenport, Iowa. Both are capable of double-digit kills.

7. Pleasant Plains (34-6) – The defending IHSA Class 2A champions have a few holes to fill, but overall return enough firepower to challenge for another run at Redbird Arena. Back from last year’s team that surprised St. Thomas More, 25-22, 15-25, 26-24, in an IHSA semifinal are 5-10 senior rightside hitter Maddie Reiser (143 kills, 44 blocks through the 2018 supersectional), 5-8 senior middle hitter Anna Kanilakan (124 kills, 64 blocks), 5-8 senior outside hitter Macy Kanilakan (103 kills, 12 blocks), 5-7 senior setter Emily Long (430 assists) and 5-7 senior libero MacKenzie Houser (460 digs). 

8. Nashville (32-10)
– Eventual runner-up Galena and outside hitter Morgan Wills overwhelmed Nashville in a Class 2A semifinal in 2018, but the Hornets bounced back and showed their better selves in a 19-25, 25-15, 25-16 loss to St. Thomas More in the third-place match. Nashville figures to contend again in 2019 behind senior Sydney Schnitker (138 kills, 31 aces, 56 assists and 441 digs in 2018), senior middle hitter Delaney Varel (217 kills, 85 blocks, 39 digs), sophomore middle hitter Hazel Konkel (140 kills, 86 blocks) and senior setter Abby Grabowski (360 assists, 159 digs, 14 kills, 47 aces).

9. Murphysboro (25-13) – The good news? The Red Devils drop down to Class 2A in 2019. The bad news? So does Breese Mater Dei, which ousted Murphysboro, 25-16, 25-14, in a 3A sectional semifinal in 2018. Murphysboro also has to replace 5-10 setter/outside hitter Rachel Finders and 5-10 opposite hitter Maddie LaBranche, a pair of John A. Logan Community College recruits. But there’s help, and hope, returning in 5-9 senior Lillie Schaldemose, 5-10 junior Kylee Kerrens, and senior setter Ashley Jarrett. Also expected to return are seniors Island Dooley and Ayden Ruffner and juniors Bridgette Clover and Maggie Williams.

10. Lawrenceville (17-16) – The Indians improved from 6-22 in 2017 to 17-16 in 2018. It’s not inconceivable that Lawrenceville can improve by another 10 or so games in 2019, especially with Chloe Britton back for another season from the team that lost 25-20, 25-14 to Carmi in a Class 2A regional semifinal. All Britton did last fall was record 434 kills, 56 aces and 396 digs. And the 5-9 junior outside hitter will have plenty of help from 5-5 senior setter/rightside hitter Paige Tewell, 5-3 junior libero/defensive specialist Elizabeth Steffey, 5-6 senior rightside/outside hitter Raylin Carey, 5-11 sophomore middle/rightside hitter Abbie Vaughn and 5-5 sophomore defensive specialist Paisley Winkles.

Others (in alphabetical order): Chicago Christian, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, Harvest Christian, IC Catholic Prep, Lawrenceville, Maroa-Forsyth, Massac County, Montini, Tri-Valley, Williamsville.

Madi Malone and Newark are heavy favorites to defend their Class 1A title in 2019.

Class 1A

1. Newark (40-2)
– The Lady Norseman are overwhelming favorites to repeat in Class 1A in 2019. Why? Start with 6-foot junior Madi Malone, who had 497 kills, 32 blocks, 79 aces and 328 digs to lead the Lady Norsemen to the 2018 championship. She had 11 kills and 7 digs in Newark’s 25-16, 25-23 victory over Hartsburg-Emden in the title match after putting down 12 kills in the semifinal against Grayville. But there are also 6-foot middle blocker Mattie Chapman (204 kills, 55 blocks) and 6-foot sophomore Megan Willliams (227 kills) with whom to contend. Libero Meggie Scott added more than 500 digs for Newark, which has to search for a new setter with the graduation of Olivia Nelson.

2. Lena-Winslow (33-6)
– Coach Sue Amendt should welcome back many of the key figures from the team that reached the Class 2A sectional finals before falling to IHSA runner-up Galena, including senior outside hitter Madi Schultz (250 kills), senior middle blocker/setter Jaden Julius (248 kills, 56 aces, 54 blocks, 363 assists), senior setter Jenna Bidlingmaier (475 assists), senior defensive specialist Jenna Zeal and senior outside hitter Paige Sowle-Diffenderfer (81 kills). Lena-Winslow is armed for another long tournament run, that is, of course, if it can survive the brutal Northwest Upstate Illini, which produced Galena, 1A supersectional finalist Durand and perennially tough Dakota.

3. Dakota (22-14) – Thanks to the IHSA’s new enrollment configuration, Dakota drops down from Class 2A, which makes the perennial powerhouse from Northwest Illinois a strong Class 1A contender in 2019.  Of course, it also helps that coach Kim Toelke did not graduate a single player off last year’s regional semifinalist, including Illprepvb.com all-state selection Tabytha Toelke, a 5-11 junior who pounded out 428 kills in 2018 to go along with 68 aces and 35 blocks. Also back should be 5-7 senior outside hitter Kaylyn Field (195 kills, 266 digs in 2018) and 5-9 senior rightside Raven Knox (93 kills). Laura Rankin, a 5-8 senior, is back to handle the setting chores.

4. Grayville (27-11) – The Bison made an improbable run to the Class 1A semifinals in 2018, defeating No. 1 seed Cobden, 25-14, 25-22, in a sectional final, and No. 1 seed Norris City Omaha Enfield, 26-24, 25-20, in the sectional championship. Grayvile graduated only one player off that team – setter/middle hitter Carsyn Robinson – and welcomes back its four top attackers, including 5-7 senior outside hitter Sydney Foster (259 kills), who electrified the crowd at Redbird Arena with her athletic ability. Also back should be 5-7 junior outside hitter Kamille Johnson, 5-8 sophomore middle hitter Macy Knight, 5-8 sophomore opposite Alyvia Rahmoeller and 5-4 sophomore setter Kinley Milligan.      

5. Hartsburg-Emden (36-5)
– Always a factor in the Class 1A sweepstakes, Hartsburg-Emden is expected to return several key players from last year’s IHSA runner-up, including 5-10 junior Grace Beekman (299 kills, 45 blocks, 49 aces and 512 assists in 2018). Also back will be 5-10 junior middle blocker Alaina Bradburn (139 kills, 91 blocks), 5-8 senior setter Lily Escobedo (252 assists) and 5-4 senior defensive specialist Emily Craig (103 digs). Watch freshman setter Avan Classen. The Stags did suffer a huge blow when 5-8 freshman outside hitter Lily Barry enrolled at Normal U-High. And how do you replace four-year starter and kill machine Anna Hayes (more than 500 kills in 2018)? Probably by committee and by relying on the pipeline that has made the tiny school (67 students) a perennial volleyball power.

6. Norris City-Omaha-Enfield (32-6) – Gone is 6-foot middle blocker Halle Everett, the school’s all-time leading kill leader. But all is not lost in Norris City. Five-foot-10 senior middle blocker (and third-year starter) Emilee Bishop returns, as do junior outside hitter Evie Duncan, junior outside hitter Sophie Neal and junior setter Mattie Wells from the team that reached the sectional finals before losing to surprising Grayville, 26-24, 25-20. Duncan had 8 kills in that match while Wells dished out 15 assists. Of course, replacing Everett’s 306 kills in 2018 won’t be easy.

7. Mt. Pulaski (26-10) – Mt. Pulaski is still looking for its first trip to Redbird since 2012. Last year, the Hilltoppers reached the sectional finals before losing to Jacksonville Routt, 25-20, 26-24.  Despite losing several key players from that team, Mt. Pulaski should still be a load for its Tomahawk Conference opponents to handle behind  5-10 senior middle hitter Paige Stewart, 5-8 senior rightside hitter Leah Beckers, 5-5 senior setter Isabella Wade, 5-6 junior setter Chloe Olson and 5-9 sophomore middle hitter Cassidy Clark. Help could also be coming from a freshman class that won the IESA seventh grade title in 2018.

8. Lanark Eastland (24-13) – Remember this name – Karlie Krogman. All the 5-11 junior middle hitter did last year was smash 306 kills to go along with 39 aces for a team that lost to Durand, 25-20, 25-17, in a sectional semifinal. But Krogman isn’t the only weapon returning for Eastland. Also back will be sophomore outside hitter Addison Burkholder (118 kills, 39 aces, 310 digs), 5-5 senior Dani Rush (97 kills, 19 blocks) and senior setter Erin Henze (393 assists). Will help come from seniors Colleen Eaton and Meredith Janssen or juniors Paige Bardell and Madison Cropper?

9. Durand (35-3) – A not-so-funny thing happened to Durand along the way to Redbird Arena last fall. It ran into eventual Class 1A champion Newark and Madi Malone in the supersectional and dropped a heartbreaking 26-24, 23-25, 25-21 decision. Graduation was not kind to Durand, claiming such stalwarts as Marissa Kelsey, McKenzie Damon and Katie Nevdal. But the Bulldogs still figure to rate among the state’s better small-school teams with senior middle hitter Hannah Proctor, 5-7 senior and three-sport standout Ali Asche, 5-6 senior Abby Erickson, senior setter Miranda Kelsey and sophomore setter Jenna Damon.

10. Okawville (10-23) – Looking for a dark horse in Class 1A? How about Okawville? The Rockets of coach Debbie Frederking welcome back five key players from a team that dropped seven three-set matches and was a handful of points from reaching a regional final. Among the returnees should be senior setter/rightside hitter Megan Schleifer, who led Okawville with 232 assists and 35 aces while adding 173 digs and 25 blocks. Also expected back are senior outside hitter Lindsey Averbeck (23 aces, 205 digs, 24 blocks), senior middle hitter Anna Schmersahl (72 blocks, 81 kills, 27 aces), junior outside hitter Isabella Auer and junior defensive specialist Bryleigh Priest.

Others (in alphabetical order): Christopher, Fr. McGivney, Indian Creek, Kewanee Wethersfield, New Berlin, Okaw Valley, Woodlawn.

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