By: Luke Drase
Just one year after losing in the regional semifinals, the 2016 Niles West girls volleyball team went on a historic run to earn a fourth place finish in the IHSA class 4A tournament.
With the new season quickly approaching, we sat down with Niles West head coach, Stacy Roth to discuss last season’s successes, as well as to preview this years competition in the CSL South.
Coach Roth will be entering her 14th year in charge of the Niles West program. During her tenure, the Wolves have won four regional titles, and 20 or more games on six occasions.
However, despite all the success that coach Roth and Niles West has had in the past, 2016 was the first year where Niles West finally put it all together to win a sectional title and head down state.
“It was a very good feeling to win, we finally got over that hump of sectionals. So to get over that hump and to win a sectional and to win our first super-sectional as well was a really great sense of accomplishment for the girls,” said Roth.
“We had great players, but we put it all together. The chemistry that was flowing on the court, everybody doing their jobs, and just the will to win. They put their mind to it that they were not going to lose.”
Despite their success last season, Niles West must put the past behind them and focus their attention towards the 2017 season if they want to make another incredible run.
The Wolves have some challenges to overcome as they lose starting setter, Eleni Balourdos, starting libero Bianca Tomuta and starting outside hitter Kaila Johanson.
Roth said: “It’s definitely tough to lose them because our starting setter [Balourdos] and outside [Johanson] were on varsity since their freshman year.”
Even though half of last years starting lineup was lost to graduation, coach Roth is confident in her team’s newcomers and returning cast, which includes junior outside hitter Natalia Pehar, who led the Wolves in kills last year and was an All-State honorable mention as a sophomore.
“The thing we’re excited about is we have Natalie Pehar, she’s back, and she was one of the big reasons we went to state last year,” said Roth.
“She has another whole year of club experience now and we’re already seeing things from her consistency wise that we didn’t see last year.”
In addition to losing core players, Roth will be taking six weeks off for maternity leave. However, Roth was confident in her coaching staff and their ability to hold down the fort while she is away. Assistant coach Marko Kljajic will take over in Roth’s absence while JV coach Kristen Eisenberg will take on the role of assistant coach.
But before making another run to Bloomington Illinois, Niles West must navigate through a tough CSL South conference which includes the likes of Maine South, Glenbrook South, and volleyball powerhouse New Trier.
“Well the one good thing that’s happened in the past couple years is that we’ve finished top 3 in conference. In the olden day’s we were scared to play those teams, but we’re past that, we’re not scared to play anybody,” said Roth.
“Though when we do play New Trier and Glenbrook South, we have to be prepared. We can’t have a bad game because they are very good teams and we’re not going to beat them playing a bad game.”
Expectations have never been higher for Niles West, but coach Roth and her team understand the challenges they face, especially since they are now on everyone’s radar.
Coach Roth said: “Our players sat down and did their team goals the other day and they really want to get back to sectionals. They did say ‘why not us, why can’t we go back down to state?’ Realistically it’s very difficult, only four teams from our class go, but it’s always good to strive and have goals that are very high.”
With their new-found confidence, and an expectation to win after last year’s run, there is no telling what the Niles West girls volleyball program can accomplish for years to come.