CHICAGO HEIGHTS | It’s difficult to separate Amber Clay from Marian Catholic’s volleyball success the past two years.
Last year the then-sophomore led the Spartans to a 24-18 record and a surprise fourth-place finish in the Class 3A state finals.
This year the 5-foot-11 outside hitter led Marian to a second-place finish in the ever-tough East Suburban Catholic Conference and helped the Spartans to their best-ever record at 28-9 (7-2 conference).
When Clay was a freshman, the Spartans completed their seventh consecutive losing season at 10-24.
“The change has meant so much to me,” Clay said. “Coach talked about it at our banquet, how we’re creating a legacy, something that will go on forever. I’ll never forget the past two seasons. It means a lot to everyone that we leave our mark here.”
The St. John resident left her mark this season, setting records in aces in a year, kills in a year, kills in a game, career aces and career kills. This year Clay compiled 450 kills, 381 digs, 81 blocks and 67 aces.
The most notable stat is the 381 digs. Clay didn’t want to be a one-dimensional outside hitter who only played front row and rotated out of the lineup. She committed to become a better passer, and that made Marian a better team.
For Clay’s commitment to becoming a better all-round volleyball player, she is the 2012 Times Volleyball Player of the Year. She also received the honor in 2011.
“Last year we let her get her feet wet by playing back row,” Marian coach Ryan Summers said. “It was a growth experience. Her serve receive and back-row play was effective. This year she focused on back row and continued that focus in club ball.
“From the start she understood that to be an integral part of our team she needed to play back row and serve receive. She took a strong interest in that.”
Clay said she devoted 75 percent of her club season to improving her defense.
“I really wanted to make an impact,” she said. “I wanted to work on my whole game. Back row takes a lot of time and practice. It’s more mental.”
Clay also knows opponents focus on her so she relies on her teammates.
“We saw it in every game,” Clay said. “Teams remember you, but it didn’t hinder anything. It wasn’t always on me. My teammates came through, so the pressure wasn’t always on me.”
Summers said they worked on changing Clay’s swing again this year to adjust to opponents’ defenses.
“Teams really focused on her this year and sent double blocks and sometimes triple blocks to the net,” Summers said. “We had to change the swing so she could change her angles, hit around the block and hit over the block. She’s more than a one-dimensional hitter.
“She had a lot of success last year, so it’s great to see her adjust and have even a better season.”
Clay will be able to focus on Marian’s success next season, especially now since she’s made her college choice. She’s committed to play volleyball at West Point Military Academy.
“I went for a visit over the summer and fell in love with the coaches,” Clay said. “There’s a good family feeling there and everyone is pushing for everyone else to succeed, to get better. I want to be a part of that.
“This is a commitment I want to stay with me a long time. It’s a big commitment and life changing. To pass it up, would be too much.”