LANSING | Her team had just opened its season with nearly two hours of volleyball in a losing effort, in a sweltering gym, yet Nikki Van Dyke found plenty to smile about Monday at Illiana Christian.
"I've said this before," she said. "The sky's the limit for this team."
Until just then, she hadn't said it about the current Vikings.
"I said it about my 31-2 team," she added.
What, after a 25-17, 20-25, 25-21 Shepard win in Lansing, prompted such lofty comparisons to that 2009 squad?
"We're just so solid," she said. "Eleven of my girls have played club ball in the past. That's not a reality at Illiana Christian High School.
"Nine years ago, I was the first club player at Illiana."
It helps that among those club players are 6-foot-1 junior middle blocker Jamie Petrarca and 6-1 sophomore outside hitter Sydnee VanBeek.
Monday, things got off to a shaky start for a Vikings squad that had practiced just twice before the opener after holding tryouts early last week.
Illiana fell behind 8-0 in the first set, a 7-0 Shepard serving run featuring two Illiana net violations, a rotation error, the Vikings watching a free ball drop and VanBeek nearly hitting the back wall with a back row kill attempt.
And this isn't the same Shepard squad that won the South Suburban Red title last year. The Astros started four sophomores.
One of them, outside hitter Kendall Yerkes, matched VanBeek with a match-high 11 kills. Four of those came in the opening set.
"In order to play effectively, you have to be quick," Petrarca said. "That team was very quick defensively and they could jump."
In spurts, Illiana showed off some defensive quickness, augmented by a potentially intimidating block led by Petrarca. She had five solo blocks on the night, while Jana Vree added a pair.
The Vikings also showed some will.
"We could've rolled over and died after the first game, let's be honest," Van Dyke said.
Instead, the Vikings rebounded in Game 2, despite trailing for much of it. VanBeek erased the Astros' last edge with a back row kill to make it 19-19, and Illiana closed it out quickly from there, Petrarca and Vree each getting ace blocks and Mackenzie VanRoekel added a tip kill before Hannah Wegner (8 service points) evened the match with an ace.
The Vikings led as late as 15-14 in Game 3, but Yerkes out-dueled VanBeek in the finale, with seven kills in the set to VanBeek's six, the last ending the match by hitting the back line.
"That girl was fantastic," VanBeek said.