High School Sports

Althoff volleyball is loaded with seniors, but road back to state goes through class 4A

Althoff’s Grace Strieker works at the net during the Civic Memorial Super Sectional game between Mt. Zion and Althoff Friday night in Bethalto.
Althoff’s Grace Strieker works at the net during the Civic Memorial Super Sectional game between Mt. Zion and Althoff Friday night in Bethalto. Chris Johns

For three years, the Althoff Crusaders have let their record on the volleyball court speak for itself.

It was in 2016 that Althoff, competing in Class 2A, placed third in the state tournament. That was followed in 2017 when the Crusaders, led by all-state setter Louise Comerford, won the Class 3A state tournament. A year ago, the quest to repeat fell a match short when the Crusaders fell to Sterling in the Class 3A final.

This fall, the Crusaders, with 10 seniors, will battle a bump to class 4A. And they could put themselves in elite company with a fourth straight state tournament trophy.

“We know it’s going to be much tougher this year, but the girls have a chance to do something I don’t know has ever been done before and that’s for a group to go to the state volleyball tournament in three different classes,’’ Althoff coach Tony Miner said. “I’m excited for the challenge. It’s going to be tougher and the girls are well aware of just how tough its going to be.

“There are going to be matches where we’re going to be outgunned this year and we’re trying to for prepare for that.’’

Led by all-state senior middle blocker Karinna Gall and senior outside hitter Katie Wemhoener, the Crusaders open their first big-school season on Aug. 29 at Columbia.

The 6-foot Gall and 5-9 Wemhoener played huge roles in Althoff’s 37-5 team a year ago and, as a tandem, have gone 102-18 over three seasons.

One of the 18 losses still fresh in the minds of the Crusaders Heavily favored to repeat, the Crusaders ran into a Sterling team that play a near perfect match in the state final at Redbird Arena in Normal

“Sterling just played great that night. They did what we had been doing to teams all year. There were times when we thought we had a ball down for a point and someone would come flying through the air to keep the point alive for them,’’ Miner said. “Their hitters didn’t miss and while I feel like we are one of the best serving teams in the state, their serve receiving that night was flawless.”

Althoff will rely heavily on a front line which includes Gall, the 2018 Belleville News-Democrat Large School Player of the Year, Wemhoener and senior Grace Strieker.

Headed to Indiana State University next season, Gall finished 2018 with 456 kills, 349 digs, 85 blocks and 48 aces.

“She can bang with any of the top hitters in the state,’’ Miner said. of Gall. “The one thing that people who haven’t seen her before all say the first time they watch her is how consistent she is. Kariinna just doesn’t make any mistakes, she plays hard on every single point. She’s just as effective serve-receiving and playing defense as she is she is playing offense.”

Wemhoener, a Missouri State recruit, finished with 258 kills and 396 blocks while the 5-10 Strieker had 140 kills and 33 blocks.

“Katie Wemhoener might be the hardest working person I’ve ever seen in my life,’’ Miner said. Day in day out, she come in and works hard from start to finish in every practice. Every single, skill, every single drill, she goes as hard as anybody.

“Grace (Strieker) might be he most competitive girl I’ve been around. She just hates losing and will do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Headed to Illinois State University on a soccer scholarship, senior Mary Wessel returns for her senior year as the Crusaders setter after dealing 833 assists a year ago.

Seniors Claire Franke (349 digs) and Mia Orlet (249 digs) are two of the top liberos in southern Illinois, while 6-foot Payton Jackson will be counted on for both offense and defense at the net.

Others expected to play key roles off the bench include seniors Brandi Baldus, Nicky Hampton and Abby Lanter.

Miner has upgraded the Crusaders schedule to prepare them for the post season which for the first time will include southern Illinois powers Edwardsville and O’Fallon, among others.

Benet Academy and two-time defending Class 4A state champion Chicago Marist are just two of the top Claas 4A teams in the Chicago area.

“Size-wise, there are class 4A schools up in the Chicago area who have four or five girls in the 6-2 to 6-4 range and they can all play,’’ Miner said. “I don’t think there is a team in the state that we can’t beat.

“By the same token, I know there are more teams in the state who are capable of beating us this year with the move up to Class 4A.”