IHSA’s new enrollment initiative alters playoff landscape

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The IHSA’s new enrollment initiative in volleyball – dividing the four classes up equally – was not met with much enthusiasm in Palos Heights.

Chicago Christian, which finished second in Class 2A last year after winning it all in 2010, was among the schools kicked up to Class 3A.

“This season will be a true test for us,” coach James Garcia said.

“Though we already play a tough conference schedule (St. Francis, Marian Central, Rosary, Aurora Central Catholic, Montini) and in the past it has helped us succeed at state, this season will be a test to see how we handle a tougher playoff schedule,” he added.

With an actual enrollment of 364 students (multiplied to 600), Chicago Christian will compete with schools that have nearly five times as many girls.

The new 3A field (for enrollments of 531-1411) will also include 2011 2A champion Quincy Notre Dame (387 students multiplied to 638) and 2011 third-place finisher Breese Central (586 actual students).

Chicago-area schools affected include Timothy Christian and Immaculate Conception, both of which would have been contenders in 2A this year.

But non-public schools aren’t the only ones affected by the initiative. Downstate volleyball powers Benton and Columbia, both of which have made state appearances in Class 2A recently and met for a sectional title in 2011, were also bumped up to 3A.

And don’t think area big schools weren’t affected, either. Marian Catholic, Lemont and Crystal Lake Central are now 4A schools, and depending on how the IHSA stretches its rubberbands, teams like Cary-Grove, Huntley and Prairie Ridge could have a new sectional playmate in Rockford Boylan.

Boylan finished 30-4 last year in 3A and returns virtually intact. The Titans also have one of the best juniors in the state in 6-foot-1 setter/outside hitter and two-time All-American Bryanna Weiskircher, who is verbally committed to Penn State.

“We had an opportunity last year being down in 3A because of the multiplier waiver, but we were just not mentally ready to walk through that door,” Boylan coach Amanda Carlson said. “Our hope is that this time around everyone’s significant club experience has toughened them up.”

***

None of this enrollment bugaboo matters much at Montini, which has been solidly entrenched in 3A for a long time. But when people talked about Montini and girls sports, the conversation invariably turned to basketball.

Now, the volleyball team is beginning to generate some buzz.

Last year’s team, comprise primarily of underclassmen including three sophomores, finished 14-21. Those three sophomores were each named to Prepvolleyball.com’s Soph 79, a list of the top sophomores playing varsity in the country.

Leading the Broncos will be 6-foot-1 middle blocker Joyce Balash, who had 149 kills and was named all-conference in 2011.

“Joyce already showed us in her sophomore season that she had the ability and skill to dominate at the net,” head coach Steve Dowjotas said. “I feel that this season, Joyce will prove to many people that she is among the best in the state at her position.”

Five-foot-6 libero Bridget Lucas and 5-8 outside Natalie Lopez also cracked the Prepvolleyball.com list, which could include 5-11 outside hitter Monica Loftus this offseason. Loftus had an impact as a freshman with 107 kills and 15 solo blocks.

Meanwhile, 5-10 senior Kyle Hodyl, who was converted from an attacker midway through last season, returns for her first full season at setter.

“Kyle has excellent hands and a very high volleyball IQ, which is what you need in a setter,” Dowjotas said. “Kyle knows where she needs to set the ball in order to give her hitters the greatest opportunity for a kill because she used to play those positions.”

***

Thanks to 1st Alliance Volleyball Club director Beth Keck for pointing out that 1st Alliance and Sports Performance were among just nine teams nationwide that had teams ranked in the top 30 in each age group by Prepvolleyball.com.

1st Alliance’s 15-1 team was ranked 18th in the country, the 16 Silver team was ranked 27th, the 17 Silver team was ninth and the 18 Silver team was 11th for an average ranking of 16.25, good for sixth place on the list.

Sports Performance’s 15 Elite team was ranked 27th, the 16 Elite team was ranked 11th, the 17 Elite team was 26th and the 18 Elite team finished fifth in Prepvolleyball.com’s final ranking for an average of 17.25, good for seventh place overall.

“I think this really shows the strength of Chicago area players,” Keck said.

Texas Advantage Volleyball Club led all clubs nationwide with an average ranking of 7.75. Its 15s and 17s teams were both ranked second overall.

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