VERNON HILLS — When Brent Sweetwood was a freshman, he made the junior varsity boys volleyball team at Lake Zurich.
Playing up a level is usually an indication of a young athlete’s exceptional skill. But Sweetwood’s promotion was out of necessity.
“We didn’t have a freshman team,” said Sweetwood, now a 6-foot-3 senior middle hitter.
The Bears varsity finished with a .500 record that season. It was the only time Lake Zurich’s volleyball program has not had a losing season. Sweetwood and other Bears players hope to erase that distinction, believing this year’s team, featuring seven seniors, has paid its dues and is ready to win.
“A lot of us were up as sophomores. We played in middle school, for seven years now,” Sweetwood said. “We know where we are going to be [on the court].”
One indication that the Bears are an ascending program is their record in three-game matches. Five times this season, they’ve gone to a tie-breaker. Four times they’ve prevailed, twice during the Lake County Invitational tournament last Thursday and Saturday at Vernon Hills.
Victories over Carmel (25-16, 22-25, 15-12) and Libertyville (17-25, 25-13, 15-13) were viewed not just as marks in the win column, but triumphs over self-doubt built up by years of losing.
“There would so many matches we’d go to three games and barely lose. We’d have these crushing defeats,” senior libero Michael Savio said. “The experience levels on this team have increased so much that in those close matches, we believe we can win. It’s essential for a team to be strong.”
And flexible. Ankle injuries to junior outside hitters Matt Carmody and Chris Steibel have forced coach Lesly Ravenscraft to restructure her lineup. She has Savio playing more minutes at libero as opposed to outside hitter, where his powerful right-handed swing makes him one of the more dangerous offensive players in the NSC.
“He’s the type of player where you can put him anywhere,” Ravenscraft said. “When he is at libero, our back row just meshes better. And our front row is confident if we don’t get a block, he will be there.”
Both Steibel and Carmody are expected back soon. Their absence was felt in the Bears’ final tournament match Saturday, as Lake Zurich looked worn out in dropping a 25-22, 25-13 match to Lake Forest. But three victories, the final one over Lakes earlier Saturday, indicated this is a team to be taken seriously.
And that’s what Sweetwood and Savio want. The 2014 Bears believe they are building a program for sustained success.
“We’ve gotten the word spread to the school and we are getting more fans to the games,” Savio said. “I think hopefully if our team continues to be successful this season, interest will grow and we can establish a strong program the boys in the community know and are excited about.”