Highland Park winning despite shuffling lineups

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HIGHLAND PARK — Highland Park girls volleyball coach Beth Peterson could be a card dealer at a casino.

But instead of shuffling decks of cards, she’s shuffling lineups.

“This is our eighth or ninth lineup,” Peterson said after the Giants’ 25-15, 25-11 win over Deerfield Sept. 17.

Injuries are the cause. In the match against Deerfield, three Highland Park starters — sophomores Taylor Czerwinski (outside hitter) and Leah Weiss (libero) and junior Grace Rhoades (outside hitter) — were missing due to various ailments. Senior Emily Korman, who was expected to add depth at the outside hitter position, will miss the season with a knee injury.

Although injuries are a part of any sports season, what the Giants are facing could be classified as excessive. That’s why the Giants are relying on the veteran leadership provided by hitter Stela Kukoc and setter Alison Perlman.

“Sometimes for them, they feel like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Peterson said. “But they are mentally tough. They are competitive athletes.”

Perlman is a four-year varsity player. A defensive specialist when first called up to the varsity her freshman year, the 5-foot-8 Perlman moved to setter as a junior. As is the case for a quarterback with sure-handed receivers, a setter’s best friend is a hard-swinging hitter.

Kukoc is the perfect companion for Perlman. At 6-1, she possesses the ideal height for an outside hitter. Often, Peterson will have her roam along the back row to take better advantage of her length and swing velocity.

“She’s a great asset and has a nice swing from the back row,” Perlman said. “She can put down any ball I get to her.”

The daughter of former Bulls player Toni Kukoc, Stela Kukoc talks to her father during or after matches. Topics range from serve technique to physical therapy.

“[Against Deerfield] he was saying, ‘Make a tougher serve,’ and I’ll serve harder,” Stela Kukoc said. “Or he’ll tell me to stretch or get iced after practice.”

Stela Kukoc is four-year varsity player with extensive high-level club experience (she’s currently with Wildcat Juniors Volleyball Club). College volleyball is in her future. Kukoc said three schools remain on her list: Iowa, Miami (Ohio) and Wake Forest.

In early September, she went to Northwestern to watch two former club teammates play for their college teams. Taylor Tashima is a New Trier graduate and now a Northwestern freshman. Hayley Fauntleroy is also a New Trier graduate and a current Virginia Cavalier. Watching the two teams square off and visiting with Tashima and Fauntleroy was invigorating for Stela Kukoc.

“It was a high-level competition volleyball scenario. It was a lot of fun seeing them compete,” Stela Kukoc said. “It was mind blowing that I could be there next year.”

But before that happens, Stela Kukoc and Perlman have unfinished business with their current team.

“Our big goal is to win our conference. Maybe if we can get [players] back [from injury], we can be a decent threat,” Kukoc said.

Perlman added: “Even if we don’t have our full team, we are a great threat. If things are going our way, we can do some damage.”

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