CHICAGO HEIGHTS | Cinderella will be wearing black and gold this weekend, carrying a metaphorical shield.
The Class 3A volleyball field at this weekend's IHSA state tournament is filled with storied programs. Defending Class 3A champion Breese Mater Dei (37-3) is making its 21st appearance in a state volleyball tournament. St. Francis (34-6) from Wheaton features a coach with more than 1,000 career wins and is making its 15th appearance in a state tournament. Woodstock Marian Central (34-6) finished third in the Class 3A tournament last year and will be making its third appearance in a state tournament in the last seven years.
And then there is the team with more losses this season than the other 3A state semifinalists, combined.
When Marian Catholic (24-16) was mired in an early season, five-game skid — albeit against mostly quality programs, including St. Francis — first-year coach Ryan Summers decided to tell his Spartans about the original warriors of Sparta, who were taught to use their shields to defend not only themselves, but also their fellow soldiers. It was a classic story of teamwork and sacrifice that his players took to heart, adopting the phrase "shields up" as an on-court encouragement.
The results soon followed.
The Spartans enter Friday's state semifinal against Marian Central at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena having won eight in a row and 12 of their last 13 matches. It is the volleyball program's second trip to state and its first appearance in a state semifinal.
The match is scheduled to start about 6 p.m., following the conclusion of the Breese Mater Dei match with St. Francis.
"For sure, if this tournament was played in Vegas, the odds would be on the other teams," Summers said. "But fortunately for us, it's not played in Vegas, it is played in Redbird Arena, and we are a different team than we were earlier in the year."
The Spartans, which feature only one senior on the team, have relied on versatility to get the job done. Sophomore outside hitter Amber Clay has led the attack for much of the season, but freshman middle hitter Kelsey Clark stepped up and led the Spartans in kills in Saturday's Rich East Supersectional victory over Payton College Prep. Summers said players such as middle hitter Kendyl Todd, defensive specialist Taylor Byas and libero Nicole Manno may not put up big box score statistics but will be every bit as important to the fortunes of the squad this weekend.
"Manno's serve receive — not a highly publicized stat in volleyball — has been extremely solid," Summer said. "It's her passing that allows our outsides and middles to work. And we've faced some outstanding competition all year long, but Byas is one of the fastest (defensive specialists) that we've seen this year. She covers so much court for us."
Manno's contribution to this weekend's run at history began earlier in the week, when she told her teammates a story of her own. Last year, Manno went to the state tournament as a spectator to support a friend of who played for Chicago Christian.
"Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the size of the arena," Manno said. "It was like going to a Bulls game. One of the things I told (my teammates) was that we've got to stay focused. When you walk into the arena, you've got to be thinking that you have a goal and you have to accomplish that goal. We can't worry about the size of the place or the reputations of the other teams that are there."
Though the Spartans have not played the Hurricanes this year, both teams played at the Mother McAuley Nike tournament in mid-September, a week before the Spartans' low ebb of the season. The Hurricanes, which are riding a 12-match winning streak, finished ahead of the Spartans at the prestigious tournament.
"The fact that we are playing another school named Marian is kind of weird," Manno said. "I guess we'll find out who the better Marian team will be."
Byas said the Spartans have embraced the underdog role, even if they don't really believe the tag.
"After a point of being down so much, you get to that certain point where you just have to realize that we can do this," Byas said. "It's all about confidence."