PALATINE, Ill. – After a successful 36-win season in 2012 in which the Hawks earned a share of the N4C crown, the Harper College volleyball team comes into the season ranked No. 6 in the NJCAA Div. III preseason poll and begins its quest for another league title in a strong conference.
Hawks head coach Bob Vilsoet's team returns six players from last year's squad despite the absence of First Team All-American Erinn Hellweg (Wauconda, Ill./Wauconda), who will be redshirting this season.
"Every one of them is stronger than they were last year," Vilsoet said. "We have versatile hitters that can hit all of the positions."
Vilsoet also has eight new players who will have a chance to make an impact for the Hawks.
Vilsoet believes the N4C is the strongest conference in the country, headed up by Madison College, who comes into the season as the top-ranked team in the nation. The Hawks host the WolfPack on Sept. 19 before traveling to Madison Oct. 17.
"They are a very strong team and have captains and All-Conference players returning," Vilsoet said. "They're the real deal and deserve to be No. 1."
Last year's defending NJCAA Division III national champion Rock Valley is among others receiving votes. Kyle Shondell is now in charge of the program, taking over the program from Abby Jenkins, who led the Golden Eagles to three consecutive national tournaments. The Hawks open their home schedule against the Eagles on Tuesday, Aug. 27.
Joliet will also be in the mix with a strong returning group of players under the direction of Kisha Cameron, who was an assistant at Harper for two years.
The Hawks open tournament play this weekend at the College of DuPage 18th Annual Classic. They play another strong tournament schedule in 2013, including the Rochester Technical College Invite (Sept. 6-7), Illinois Valley Tournament (Sept. 14), Harper College Invitational (Sept. 20-21), Harper College Invite (Oct. 5), Lincoln Land Invitational (Oct. 11-12) and Kishwaukee Invitational (Oct. 18-19).
While Vilsoet said the Hawks are taking it day-by-day to get better, his team will stay have the same goals of winning games and tournaments, playing tough against the excellent teams, winning conference and regionals and doing its best at the national tournament.
"The goal has always been to win the last point of the year," Vilsoet said.
In 2012, Kelly Sommers (Arlington Heights, Ill./Buffalo Grove) lived up to the tradition of great setters at Harper College, as she was named First Team All-Conference, First Team All-Region, Region IV All-Tournament Team and won the prestigious award of NJCAA Div. III Player of the Week last September.
This year, the setting duties will be shared by sophomore Valerie Bazemore (Houston, Tex./Keller) and freshman Lindsey Murphy (Lake in the Hills, Ill./Crystal Lake South). While Bazemore only played in 30 games last year, she had 216 assists (7.7 per game), good for second on the team.
Sophomore Madison Rodriguez (Palatine, Ill./Palatine), who is a natural left side hitter, will play middle for the Hawks. Rodriguez worked hard in the spring and summer and has become a versatile all-around player.
The Hawks are very deep and talented on the outside, starting with sophomores Veronica Dabrowski (Mount Prospect, Ill./Rolling Meadows) and Rebekah Hischke(Algonquin, Ill./Dundee Crown). Dabrowski, a First Team All-Conference selection last year, was second on the team with 353 kills in 2012 and is looking much better this year. Hischke can hit both sides well and has caught the eye of her coach early on.
"She (Hischke) jumps high and hits hard," Vilsoet said. "She worked hard and blossomed into a great player."
Sophomore right side Alyse Kolner (Crystal Lake, Ill./Marion Central) will also be a factor for the Hawks. Vilsoet described her as having the "perfect temperament" to play the sport, and Kolner will be an asset to the Hawks because she can play all the positions effectively. A welcome addition for Harper is second year player Alex Messner (Hoffman Estates, Ill./Fremd), who played for DePauw University in 2011 and is a strong hitter and strong defensively.
Freshman Melina Villaber (Chicago, Ill./Taft) and Morgan Peterson (Roselle, Ill./Conant ) will also be in the mix on the outside for the Hawks. Villaber was named All-City while at Taft H.S.
As a freshman, Kelly Spychala (Des Plaines, Ill./Elk Grove) gained valuable experience and totaled 338 digs in 101 games. Those numbers are both sure to increase as Spychala will see most of the court time at libero for the Hawks.
"She's very quick and is a strong passer and great leader," Vilsoet said.
Newcomers Claire Fluegel (West Dundee, Ill./Elgin Academy), Katherine Milla (Honduras/CEAD Christian School) and Anna Lanier (Dominican Republic/Home School) all bring positive qualities to the Hawks.
While it helps to have a 300-win coach on the sidelines in Vilsoet, who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, the Hawks have added even more volleyball IQ in 2013 in assistant coaches Matt Madia and Edgar Lara.
Madia is a local pro beach sand player and Vilsoet describes him as a "volleyball Encyclopedia". Lara runs the Dynamic Impact Volleyball Club out of Roselle.
Assistant coach Jeanie Behrens, who played for Vilsoet in 2002, has been on staff since 2005.