If athletes were stocks, those who bought early on Sandburg’s Neil Naughton can look forward to some substantial dividends.
A solid middle hitter at the start of the season, the 6-foot-7 Naughton is blossoming into one of the top middles in the Southland.
“Neil’s shown significant growth over one full season,” Sandburg coach Sean Airola said. “If you look at every middle across the board in our (SouthWest Suburban) conference, I don’t know if there’s a better one.”
Naughton had eight kills Wednesday to lead Sandburg past Marist 25-18, 25-22 in Orland Park. He also added a block and an assist to Jimmy Drynan.
Dan Tynski posted 10 kills, Paul Chmura had nine and Ian Zalewski doled out 22 assists for Sandburg (23-8). Kyle Van Stedum, the Eagles’ other middle, recorded four blocks.
“I think Neil and Kyle are the best 1-2 middle hitters in the state,” Zalewski said.
Zalewski added three kills via dumps, the second of which gave Sandburg an 18-15 lead in Set 1.
“I realized (Marist) wasn’t going up with me, so I started dumping it,” Zalewski said. “I tried to look for it early so the middles were able to go one on one.”
Jake Moran continued his strong season with eight kills for Marist (15-17). Tom Inzinga and Nick O’Gorman added four kills apiece and Tim Hauser dished 15 assists.
In Set 2, a Moran kill cut Sandburg’s lead 21-19, but Naughton responded on the next play with a blast up the gut.
The reason behind Naughton’s surge?
“I feel like the passes are so perfect, it’s so easy to hit,” Naughton said. “And then Ian does such a good job. He sees where the block is and pushes me where I have to go.”
Marist stayed within striking distance and owned a two-point advantage after a Hauser in the second set, but Sandburg came away with the big rallies as Tynski notched three kills over the last nine points.
“We just need to find that spark and confidence to say, ‘Hey, we are point for point. We can win,’” Marist coach Jodi Frigo said. “We’re lacking that little oomph at the end.”
Sandburg has now won 11 of 12. It’s lone loss during that span came from returning state runner-up Lincoln-Way North.