CHICAGO HEIGHTS | Marian Catholic sophomore Amber Clay loves to play volleyball at the varsity level.
Her varsity opponents might not be so thrilled to see her across the net.
Clay has made her presence known this season for the Spartans, as the 5-foot-11 outside hitter has led a turnaround for the program, which won 10 games in 2010, and has 21 victories so far this season under first-year coach Ryan Summers. The team hopes to continue that run as the Class 3A Marian Catholic Sectional tournament begins tonight.
The Spartans (21-16) will open the sectional tournament with a 6 p.m. match against a Queen of Peace team they have defeated twice this year. Illiana Christian will face Oak Forest in the other semifinal, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. The winners of today's matches will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday for the sectional title.
The Spartans enter the tournament as the top seed and winners of seven of their last eight matches.
"As a team, we've been up and down this year, but lately we've been doing good," said Clay, who led the team with 256 kills during the regular season. "It's been a mental thing with us this year, especially after a loss, but now we know what to do. All we have to do is execute."
Execution has not always come easy this year for the Spartans, especially for Clay, who Summers said has had to learn to adapt to the speed of the game and teams who have stacked their defenses in the hope of limiting her effectiveness.
"In situations like that, a lot of it depends on which player is hot for us," Summers said. "Players like Kendyl Todd and Kelsey Clark have done a nice job in the middle of keeping pressure off Amber, but Amber is a hammer."
Summers said the turnaround this year has been a perfect storm of factors, and not just from a change in the coaching staff. Clay, Todd and Clark also get help along the frontline from right side senior Jasmine King, who transferred to Marian Catholic from De La Salle this year. The frontline has been well fed from junior Colleen Rynne, who stepped in as the team's setter this season. Summers said he challenged the team early with preseason conditioning, and they enthusiastically responded.
"We have a good combination and variety of players," Summers said. "A lot of them didn't know what to think because (our coaching staff) has changed a lot of things this year, but when we set up new things for them to try, they were willing to do it."
Summers and Clay were both pleasantly surprised when the Spartans earned the top seed, despite finishing in the middle of the East Suburban Catholic standings. Summers considers his team's first opponent dangerous, despite the success against them. He has also scouted third-seeded Oak Forest and knows a few of the players on Illiana Christian from the club volleyball circuit.
Summers said there are no easy opponents the rest of the way.
"I'm thinking that playing the sectional tournament at home is more of an advantage because of the familiarity involved," Summers said. "I expect Queen of Peace to bring a lot of fans, and that will probably be true for Oak Forest and Illiana Christian, as well. I hope we have a good turnout."