CHICAGO HEIGHTS | She grew up in a large, athletic, Catholic family, so it's no surprise Sister Mary Jo Sobieck has acclimated herself so easily into the Marian Catholic High School community.

Sobieck is one of the 16 Dominican sisters who operate Marian Catholic, and she's taken a spiritual and educational journey to Chicago Heights. It's her first year at Marian teaching theology to sophomores and juniors, and she's also an assistant coach for the boys varsity volleyball team.

"I love teenagers," she said. "The kids here are great, and there are all the activities.

"Growing up in a big family, I'm used to being around a lot of brothers, sisters and cousins. It's become routine, seeing the kids every day and relating to them and taking an interest in what they're doing."

Marian senior Pat O'Malley, captain of the volleyball team, said he got to know Sister Mary Jo during the fall at home football games.

"She would come out to the tailgates with us, and she would be the one playing football and helping grill, so I loved to hear she was going to be helping us out," he said. "We were excited before the season started."

Sobieck, who has five older brothers and four older sisters, graduated from Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn., in 1987, and got her bachelor's degree from The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, where she played volleyball and softball. After graduation, she took a teaching job at Holy Rosary School in Duluth.

Holy Rosary is operated by the Dominican sisters, and Sobieck found the order intriguing. She eventually entered the community and became a religious in 1993.

It meant a move to Springfield, Ill., and a three-year commitment to the convent.

"From there, I went through the process to take the courses to become a sister," Sobieck said.

Once she took her vows and became a nun, Sobieck was sent to Holy Angels, a K-8 school in Aurora, in 1996, where she taught and coached volleyball.

"It was great to just teach the skills, but you're building confidence and self-esteem, and that's what I really enjoyed about coaching," Sobieck said. "You have that sense of relationship and encouraging one another and recognizing their gifts."

She went back to Holy Rosary in '99 and earned a master's degree from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. That led to her moving to Marian before the start of this school year, and it has been a blessing on both sides.

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"I know how my players are, and I thought maybe they might be a little intimidated," Marian Catholic volleyball head coach Kevin Kirk said. "But Mary Jo came in, and said, 'Yes, I am a sister.' She was a little light-hearted. She just told them to 'be yourself.'"

It's worked out very well for the Spartans, and Kirk can't imagine not having Sister Mary Jo as an assistant. He appreciates everything she brings to the program.

"It would almost be foolish not to ask her," he said. "It's been a pleasure to work with her. She's been extremely helpful.

"She helps me see the brighter side of things. I've learned a lot from her, on and off the court."

Sobieck, who also will accompany 13 Marian students on a missionary trip to Mexico in June, is a self-proclaimed tomboy.

"I believe it helps when you see the kids outside of the classroom," she said. "When you're able to see them and encourage them, they respond. You can reach them a little bit better.

"That's not why I do it, but you're teaching the whole kid. You're concerned about them emotionally, spiritually and athletically."

O'Malley said students gravitate toward Sister Mary Jo's classroom.

"You know you can go to her for anything, even if it has nothing to do with volleyball or even school," he said. "If something is bothering you and you need to talk to her, she's always there. She's such a positive influence."

Junior Clay Robinson said Sobieck's expertise has helped the team not only defensively, but also mentally.

"If you mess up, she'll tell you to put it past you and keep going," Robinson said. "She cheers us up whenever we're down. She teaches a lot."

"She encompasses what Marian Catholic is all about," said junior Keith Haines, who admitted being apprehensive the first time he cursed after making a mistake.

"She's like, 'It's all right, just be who you are as a person.' I really took that advice, and I can't believe she's such a good person."