1. Lincoln-Way East (35-4): Sun-Times Player of the Year Austin Royer returns to build on his school record for career assists. Also back are outside hitters Nate Van Dellen (315 kills last season) and Ryan Vorderer (337) and libero Josh Phalen, who missed much of last year with a broken thumb.
2. Lincoln-Way North (37-4): The Phoenix may have the best 1-2 outside punch in the state in Jake Walenga and Brad McFarland (more than 350 kills in 2013). Lincoln-Way North also welcomes back middle hitter Ken Christensen and setter Austin Faller from the team that fell to Downers South in the state championship match.
3. Loyola (31-7): The Ramblers are looking for their first trip to the state finals in 20 years. Back from last year are Sun-Times All-Area selection David Wieczorek (Pepperdine), libero Collin Merk and 6-6 junior middle Jakub Mazurek. Jack Talaga will run a 5-1 and 6-7 junior Max Haberkorn will help at the net.
4. Lake Park (25-13): The Lancers return every starter but one from last year’s sectional finalist. Among the best of a huge senior class are setter Quin Krisik (959 assists, 74 kills), 6-5 middle Sean Moore (172 kills, 117 blocks), 6-3 rightside Shawn Fritsche (133 kills) and 6-2 outside Dominick Terry (178 kills).
5. Waubonsie Valley (14-21): Plagued by injuries last year, the Warriors return healthy and hungry. Six-foot-4 Michael Simmons is among the best outsides around and will look to sophomore Jake Furman to get him the ball. Help comes from 6-5 middle Connor Douville, 6-4 outside Tim Williams, junior libero Andrew Salmon and 6-6 junior Logan Yanisch.
6. Deerfield (32-7): Four starters return from the team that lost to Downers South in three sets in last year’s quarterfinals, including 6-1 outsides Zach Hara and John Harlan. Also back are 6-1 middles Eli Schmidt and Eric Stepian. Lack of size wasn’t a problem last year, but coach Eugene Chung does have to find a setter and libero.
7. Sandburg (30-8): The Eagles will be as strong as ever but will face their usual rugged schedule with the Lincoln-Ways and the Tiger Classic. Coach Sean Airola will build around 6-0 setter Ian Zalewski and 6-foot junior Paul Chmura with 6-5 outside Frank Hanes, 6-7 middle Neil Naughton, 6-1 libero Jimmy Drynan and 6-3 opposite Dan Tynski.
8. Vernon Hills (32-7): The Cougars return six of eight players who were on the floor in last season’s sectional final loss to Deerfield, including 6-4 setter Ryan Opitz (776 assists, 80 kills), 6-2 outside Michael Heinz, 6-1 Max Spiglanin (303 kills) and 6-5 junior Lem Turner.
9. Benet (25-11): Undefeated East Suburban Catholic champs last year, Amy Van Eekeren’s Redwings return 6-11 rightside Ricky Gevis, 6-5 middle Garrett Metzger, junior outside Scott Kleiser and sophomore setter Ben Mazza. If Van Eekeren decides to run a 6-2, look for 6-1 sophomore Jackson Van Eekeren to get the nod.
10. Barrington (28-9): Six-foot-4 middle Colin Castagna leads four returning starters. “He is dynamic, physical, and really an amazing overall athlete,” coach Rob Ridenour said. Also back are 6-4 junior opposite Justin Glader, setter Tommy Soifer and defensive specialist Indy Nenn. Watch 6-3 junior Adam Glader, 6-3 junior Noah Richetti, 6-2 Connor Wright and 6-7 sophomore Ethan Carroll.
Other teams to watch:St. Francis, New Trier, Downers South, Brother Rice, Glenbrook South, WW South, Glenbard West, Minooka, Glenbrook North, Marist.