Head coach Pam MacPherson and the rest of the Evanston volleyball staff have seen glimpses of what the future could be throughout an otherwise disappointing season for the Wildkit spikers.
MacPherson got an extended look into the future --- and maybe a glimpse of future greatness --- Thursday night in a season-ending loss to Loyola Academy by a 25-17, 15-25, 25-14 margin in the Class 4A Evanston Regional championship match at Beardsley Gym.
Over one stretch in the second set the Kits outscored No. 2 sectional seed Loyola 14-2 and flashed the potential that MacPherson knew was there all along.
Now her players know it too, even after going to the sidelines with an overall record of 16-19. Loyola advanced to the New Trier sectional semifinals with a 28-7 mark after defeating Evanston for the second time this season.
ETHS will lose only two players --- outside hitters Caitlin Boer and Akilah Wilson --- to graduation and every one of the returning 11 players has started on occasion this fall. So experience, or the lack of it, shouldn’t be an issue at this point next season.
Maintaining momentum in a match, on the other hand, was at times elusive even though the effort was always present this season.
“I wish we could have kept that second game momentum in the third game,” MacPherson said. “But I’m really proud of our girls for pushing Loyola to three games, because Loyola is a great team. We really fought hard in that second game, and I know they all felt what we can be if we can just play a little more consistent.
“With 11 returning players, we can do some great things next year. Part of the problem this year was the schedule maker --- me --- because we played in four really hard tournaments and that didn’t help a young team like ours build their confidence. I may have tried to push them a little too early on.”
The blocking of 6-foot-3 sophomore Ruby Smith and the serving of junior libero Clara Gruger sparked the hosts to victory in the second set. Smith finished with a team-high 5 blocks and also added a pair of kills, while Gruger was credited with 4 ace serves.
Another underclassman, junior Christine Covode, collected a team-best 10 kills and demonstrated once again that she could be the go-to player the squad lacked on offense for much of the campaign.
Smith, who didn’t even start playing volleyball until she was an 8th grader, showed just how much life can be injected into a team on the defensive end when she rejected a middle hit by Loyola’s Jamie Wright and a back row attack by Danielle Van Zelst as the Wildkits broke away from a 9-9 tie in the second set with a 5-0 surge.
Then with Gruger at the service line, Evanston reeled off eight unanswered points and built a 23-11 advantage.
Evanston’s last lead of the season came at 2-1 in the decisive third set. A jam by Covode brought the Kits to within 16-10, before the Ramblers answered with five straight points, two of them on ace serves.
“Ruby and Clara were definitely our co-MVPs tonight,” MacPherson praised. “Clara’s passing in the second and third games was awesome, and she served awesome to put us back in the ball game, too. I thought we took Loyola out of their offense with Clara’s serving.
“Loyola is a team that’s built around its middles and there’s no reason we can’t build around Ruby like that. Tonight she had some really key blocks and she swung away a couple of times on balls where she would have just tipped earlier in the season. That shows how she’s really progressed this year right there. When you have a middle that you have to be aware of all the time, that opens things up for the other girls on the court. Ruby can do that for us.”