WINNETKA — When it comes to volleyball, Niles West sophomore Eleni Balourdos said her two biggest role models are Olivia Rusek and Taylor Tashima.
Rusek, who now plays at Miami (Ohio), starred for the Wolves during her four-year career. She was the team’s unquestioned No. 1 offensive option last season and served as a mentor to Balourdos — who ran Niles West’s offense as a freshman setter.
“Olivia’s a big part of Eleni’s progress,” Niles West coach Stacy Metoyer said. “Olivia gave her a lot of guidance last year. I think she looks up to Olivia a lot, and Olivia is the best role model that you could ask for. She’s humble, she’s great in skill, she’s a leader.”
Balourdos and Rusek play different positions but share many of the same characteristics. Aside from being talented — Balourdos was an all-CSL South selection as a freshman — and passionate about volleyball, they’re also excellent leaders. Balourdos was selected as a captain this year, which Metoyer said is the first time a sophomore has been a captain since she’s been at Niles West.
While it’s an unconventional selection, it makes sense. Metoyer said Balourdos sets a positive example — on the court, in practice and in school — for others to emulate. Moreover, Metoyer said Balourdos is not afraid to speak up, specifically when it comes to identifying and correcting something a teammate is doing wrong.
“She has all the qualities of a leader,” Metoyer said.
In the offseason, Balourdos played club volleyball for Wildcat Juniors, one of the area’s best clubs and where Rusek and Tashima had played.
Balourdos said she looks up to Tashima, a 2014 New Trier graduate who plays for Northwestern, because of the quality of her sets as well as her aggressiveness.
Balourdos worked with members of a Wildcat Juniors coaching staff that helped Tashima develop into one of the best setters in the country, and Balourdos made big strides in the offseason. Her setting lessons with Evelyn Kim were a big part of her development.
Those lessons helped Balourdos with some of the more subtle aspects of the position, like her “quick hands, not taking forever [to set the ball] and just making smart decisions in general — like watching where the blocks are,” Balourdos said.
Being able to keep one’s eye on the ball and sprinting to get underneath it, while simultaneously reading the opposition’s front line, is something outstanding setters like Tashima do well. However, doing all three things in a short amount of time is difficult, Balourdos said, and it’s an area where she wants to improve.
Metoyer said Balourdos’ decision-making has gotten better over the last year, which has been vital because her role is more complex as a sophomore.
Niles West’s offensive focus was to set Rusek as much as possible a year ago, Metoyer said, but the Wolves are running more of a spread offense this season. As a result, it’s Balourdos’ responsibility to make the right read and the right pass — at the correct height and pace — to put the team’s hitters in a position to put the ball away.
Balourdos has excelled in this role thus far.
“I’m just really connected with my hitters this year,” Balourdos said.