Girls Volleyball: Marian Catholic feeling young, feeling strongMarian Catholic's Amber Clay, (from left) Kelsey Clark, and Kendyl Todd. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 8, 2011 7:25PM
They started the journey with a new coach and almost all new kids.
Young kids, at that.
Two sophomores and one freshman would find themselves in the starting lineup.
Who could have known what was about to happen?
Marian Catholic sophomore Kendyl Todd remembers standing in the main gym with her new teammates in August, pointing up and looking at the banners that displayed with pride the school’s volleyball success.
Way back when.
“We were all talking about them,” Todd said. “We were saying, ‘We want to make Marian that winning school again.’ We wanted to make people go, ‘Oh, we’re playing Marian,’ and realize that they were facing some real competition.”
The kids delivered.
Sporting a starting lineup with no seniors, Marian will make its first appearance at Redbird Arena in Normal since 2002 when the Spartans (24-16) play Woodstock Marian (34-6) Friday in a Class 3A state semifinal.
Woodstock Marian, which has won its last 12 matches, has three consistent hitters (Tara Blake, Meredith Patterson and 6-foot Emma Hussey) and a versatile senior setter (St. Louis University-bound Abby Gilleland).
“All year we’ve been taking it one game at a time, and this will kind of be the same thing,” Spartans coach Ryan Summers said.
“We got to see them a little bit at the Mother McAuley (Preview) and they finished above us, but at the time I wasn’t really looking ahead for the showdown.”
Summers had plenty of company. Nobody did.
Kelsey Clark certainly didn’t. At the time the 5-11 freshman was just happy being a contributing member of a varsity team. It was quite a leap from a year earlier, when she was playing for St. Laurence O’Toole grammar school.
“I didn’t expect anything like this to happen at all so fast,” said Clark, who is among the team leaders in kills and blocks. “I think our team togetherness, our team chemistry, definitely progressed as the season went on, and it just showed throughout our matches.”
Clark played club ball for Michio Chicago Volleyball Academy under Mother McAuley coach Jen DeJarld.
“We had a really solid team and did well at nationals and qualifiers,” Clark said. “When I had the chance to play on the varsity (at Marian), it was pleasing, really satisfying to know that I had a role on the team.”
Summers hesitated bringing her up, because he wanted to ensure she got plenty of court time.
“Just having her up for the joy of being on the varsity wouldn’t make any sense,” he said. “But when she started working (at tryouts), the arm swing and the work ethic was definitely varsity material.
“The kid works her butt off in drills. She’s tireless. She keeps running and hustling, and just has a very good arm snap. If you keep her in system she’s very effective and doesn’t play like a freshman.”
Todd, a 5-10 sophomore, spent the 2010 season on the sophomore team, and played club for Summers at Diamond Elite. She’s been a force at the net for the Spartans, with 131 kills and 130 blocks.
“She is the hardest worker on the team,” Summers said. “It takes you a couple of plays to really notice how effective she is. But the kid never stops.”
“Honestly, for me, it’s just speed and being able to get there as fast as I can,” Todd said. “I also have great outside and right side blockers to help me.”
Amber Clay, a 5-11 sophomore, is the Spartans’ main power source. Her 286 kills have her among the area leaders. She also played club ball for Michio Chicago Volleyball Academy, and more recent First Alliance. She went to grammar school near her home in Saint John, Ind.
Clay, too, played on the sophomore squad as a freshman, but got a taste of varsity ball in two regional contests.
“Amber is a hammer,” Summers said. “On the outside, she gets up high and hits the ball hard. She’s an offensive weapon. And since the beginning of the season she’s playing a lot smarter and has become more of a complete player, and that’s making a huge difference for us.”
Juniors Nicole Manno (481 digs), Colleen Rynne (880 assists), Jasmine King (113 kills, 56 blocks), Taylor Byas (233 digs), Rosalind Byrd (149 kills, 176 digs) and Jessica Brzozowski-Fryzel (214 digs) also were major contributors as the Spartans won 13 of their final 14 matches en route to a state finals weekend appearance.
“I think it was just a lot of hard work, a lot of heart,” Clay said. “I guess that hard work paid off and we peaked at the right time. No matter what the outcome is, I’m going to feel proud.
“Yeah,” Clay said with a smile. “I’ll be proud.”