Going unbeaten in 14 matches last season against Class 3A and 4A metro-east volleyball teams shows the Mater Dei Knights should be able to deal with moving up to the state’s largest playoff class this season because of the Illinois High School Association’s new “success factor” guidelines.
A victim of their own success, which includes an area-record seven state titles and 22 state tournament trips, the Knights won’t be fazed by competing in the 4A playoffs. They are 114-16 over the last five seasons with state titles in 2010 and 2011.
“What an opportunity to prove where we are,” said Mater Dei coach Chad Rakers, whose 38-4 squad finished third at the Class 3A state tournament a year ago. “You can say it when you win 2A and win 3A, but almost every year when you watch that 4A state tournament you know who the best team is. It’s not often that the 2A team or the 3A team is better.”
The Knights are going up a class, which simply means some new rivalries may develop with the Southwestern Conference. Those are the biggest schools in the metro-east, all much larger than Mater Dei’s enrollment of 427 students.
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“Now our rivals are going to become teams that we might see in the regional,” Rakers said. “Belleville West, O’Fallon, Edwardsville ... those games are going to become a much bigger deal this year.”
The Knights lost News-Democrat Large-School Player of the Year Madi Haake to Division I South Carolina Upstate and four other senior starters. Haake is one of five former Mater Dei volleyball players competing at the Division I level, including DePaul University basketball player Brooke Schulte.
“Anybody is going to feel that,” Rakers said of the graduation losses. “(Madi) was not only our assist leader, she was our kills leader and one of our digs leaders.”
As is usually the case at Mater Dei, plenty of talent remains led by 6-foot senior and McKendree University recruit Kelly Voss. Voss was second behind Haake with 250 kills last season and also second in blocks (47).
“I expect her to really step up and be our go-to girl,” Rakers said. “Her game has really come a long way in her four years at Mater Dei, more mentally than physically. She’s developed a strong mindset and that’s been a huge benefit for her.”
Other returning starters include senior setter Katie Haake (5.71 assists per match), 6-foot senior middle hitter Kat Maue (75 kills, 26 service aces), senior right side hitter Erica Lampe and junior libero-defensive specialist Erica Hitpas (323 digs, 33 service aces).
All of them saw plenty of playing time, but Rakers is looking for this new group to quickly transition through any chemistry issues or growing pains.
“Part of it is understanding how to get through big games,” he said. “You’ve got to have played those big games and tight matches. You wonder who’s going to step up, who’s going to be the kid that drives the final ball home.”
Other players in the mix include seniors Taylor Holtgrave, Ally Wise and Brooke Remmert and juniors Abby Hellmann and Megan Deimeke.
It’s no secret that a big part of Mater Dei’s success through the year has been defensive intensity and attention to detail.
“To me that’s the msot important piece of the game,” Rakers said. “When I first started coaching the game, I didn’t understand that. Like a lot of coaches I focused on the offense because that’s fun.
“Like every sport, defense wins — and that’s real. It’s not the fun part to practice because you just have to keep at it and doing it over and over. We’re not going to be big, we’re going to have to be fast.”
News-Democrat Preseason Girls Volleyball Rankings
Preseason rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records from last season.
Large school rankings (Class 3A-4A)
Mater Dei (4)
Also receiving votes: Columbia (33-5), Highland (24-8), Central (18-15), Belleville East (13-22), Freeburg (9-23), Collinsville (10-22)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-2A)
Also receiving votes: Red Bud (12-21-2), Carlyle (20-8), Wesclin (13-20), Metro-East Lutheran (6-24)