VERNON HILLS — Heading into last week’s Lake County Invitational, what Deerfield’s boys volleyball team needed more than anything was more matches.
A late spring break (the first week of April), coupled with a few holiday-forced reschedules, had the Warriors feeling a bit behind before the two-day tournament at Vernon Hills.
“We are off to a slow start in terms of games played,” coach Eugene Chung said before the tournament. “To us, [the tournament] feels like the beginning of the season.”
Chung’s take on the newness of the season isn’t strictly about the number of matches played. When Deerfield faced Highland Park in its first match of the tournament, it was the first time star outside hitter John Harlan had played all season. Slowed by a leg injury, Harlan’s return meant the Warriors finally had their preferred starting lineup, a grouping that features two important new faces.
Deerfield’s run to the state tournament would not have happened a year ago without the efficiency of graduated setter Jordan Fine. The Warriors are breaking in two replacements at Fine’s vital position: junior Nicholaus Tonner and sophomore Ryan Slack.
“We have guys on a pretty steep learning curve. Our setters are learning on the job,” Chung said.
If height was the only trait associated with expertise, Tonner, standing 6-foot-3, would have the job sewn up. But the 5-9 Slack shared equal minutes with Tonner throughout the Lake County Invitational.
Slack said he watched as many varsity games as he could last year as a freshman, observing how Fine approached offensive sets.
“Rather than talk [to him], I watched all of the good things so I would have more of an arsenal,” Slack said.
Good setters have an adept understanding of their hitters’ tendencies. Similar to baseball sluggers who might prefer a pitch higher in the strike zone, volleyball players are more comfortable taking swings when a ball is in a familiar location, whether it be near an outside pin or just above the net.
“I like a higher set but still at a point where I can have a one-on-one opportunity with blocker,” senior outside hitter Zach Hara said. For setters “it’s getting consistency and knowing what tempos we like.”
Slack added, “Everyone has certain things about them. You have to take that into account. They have to be in a position to get a kill.”
Deerfield won its first three matches at Vernon Hills in straight games. Slack and Tonner looked to be in rhythm with their outsides and middles. Saturday, the Warriors beat top-seeded Barrington, also in straight games. The victory earned Deerfield a berth in the title match for the second year in a row.
After dropping the first game to Loyola, 22-25, the Warriors rallied in the second, winning 25-17. Tiring in the third against an amped-up Ramblers squad, Deerfield dropped the game and the match, 25-12.
But the two days were productive for Deerfield. The Warriors played more matches (five) than they had all season, and they got more repetitions for their rapidly maturing setters.
“I think as the [tournament] went on, we made less errors and played better volleyball,” Hara said. “They are working hard and getting better every day.”