CALUMET CITY | Playing a very good Eisenhower team on Wednesday, Thornton Fractional's co-op volleyball team hung around a bit longer than expected, then faded in a 25-21, 21-14 South Suburban Conference loss.
Call it a good day for the Fractionals (5-13, 0-3), who had seven players available and plugged their captain, Jose Gonzalez, in at setter when the starter at that position missed school.
"I never set," Gonzalez said, "but it went easier in the first game, it went more smoothly.
"We got out of the bad rotations quick and I stayed in the front row more often. I'm more comfortable in the front row, because I usually play middle."
The 6-foot-3 senior caught Eisenhower coach Stan Natonek's eye.
"The setter's pretty nice," he said. "He's got good size. You can't hit at him.
"They're young. They've got a couple of guys who need developing, but they've got some players — (Jordan Walker), you can't serve to him. And he's a weapon out of the back row."
Walker finished with a team-high four kills and added four service points. Sophomore Julian Ayar added three kills while Alfredo Munoz had six service points — all in game one.
Eisenhower (16-8, 2-1) was led by seven kills and six blocks from Robert McCoy, a 6-foot-5 middle with a 30-inch vertical leap. Vinny Curta added kills and Alec Esparza 11 service points. The Cardinals were playing one day after beating Richards to end the Bulldogs' 38-match conference winning streak.
In the first set, Thornton Fractional led by as many as four, at 15-11, and as late as 21-20 before Esparza served out the last five points — three on two kills and an ace block from McCoy.
"It was just one of those things," Natonek said. "We should have been a little more focused from the start. From midway through the first set on, we played much better."
Not that T.F. went away. Trailing 10-3 early, Thornton Fractional closed the gap to 16-12 over a stretch that included three of Walker's kills.
That fighting spirit has served United well. The squad won just once last season.
"Five (wins) is a highlight for us," coach Peg Haney said. "For us to get to five wins in a season — and we've still got more to play — we're doing well.
"Last year, we decided we were going with younger kids to get them experienced at the varsity level. ... We were hoping it would pay off this year, and it is paying off."
Certainly, Gonzalez seemed to think so, lauding his teammates' attitudes.
"Our team chemistry is great," he said. "The egos aren't as big this year. It's a lot easier for us to get along."
And easier, perhaps, to think of springing an upset or two down the road?
"I think so," he said. "We've been close a few times. ... Maybe the first round of the regionals."