CHICAGO HEIGHTS | If you looked back to September and the struggles of a young Marian Catholic volleyball team, even the most optimistic person never would have thought the Spartans could win a regional, let alone a sectional title.
On Thursday night in their own gym, Marian Catholic beat a tough Illiana Christian team 25-21, 25-23 to win the Class 3A Marian Catholic Sectional.
The games were as close as the final scores indicated as things went back and forth with the Spartans pulling away in both games.
It is amazing a team with just one senior could mature so quickly after a not-so-good start. In late September, Marian lost five straight matches, and its record sat at 8-11.
"No, I didn't think we would win a sectional the way we were playing back in September," junior middle hitter Jasmine King said. "We knew we had to start playing better as a team. Coach (Ryan) Summers just pushed us hard and got us to believe and to do the things we needed to do."
Marian Catholic (23-16) won 10 games last year. This is the team's first winning season since 2003 and first sectional title since 2002. Summers took over and changed not only the attitudes, but also the long-range vision that this young team could win — and win now.
"We had some offensive weapons, but we all needed to play a complete game," Summers said. "The kids bought in and worked and worked. They started to realize their potential and got better."
That includes the lone senior, Iteanna McKenzie, who could not wait until next year. Her leadership was appreciated by the underclassmen.
"Iteanna is the core for us — the heart of this team," sophomore Amber Clay said. "She kept us up when we were down, and I know with one senior, that is some pressure on her, but she kept us believing."
Clay and King played a big part in Marian's domination up front. Clay is 5-foot-11, and King is 6-2. Junior setter Colleen Rynne also played a big part in those two getting good passes.
"She set us up good, and that was part of our success up front," Clay said. "Colleen did a great job tonight getting things set up."
Rynne said the new coaching staff brought in a new attitude.
"We had a lot of motivation this year from the coaches and ourselves," Rynne said. "Coach Summers, give him credit, because he had to change things, and it is tough when a new coach comes in, but he really worked with us on our skills.
"I think we out our program back (on the volleyball map)."
Marian is on a roll and certainly doesn't want it to stop Saturday at the Rich East Supersectional.
There is a good future, and the program is in good hands with Summers and his staff. But the future is also now with a chance to make a trip to Illinois State University's Redbird Arena for the state finals.
The Spartans are one win away, and Payton stands in its way. It will be a tough match, but these girls know a little about playing tough when it counts.
This column is solely the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.