By: Luke Drase
Niles West and Evanston entered Tuesday nights contest putting their undefeated CSL South records on the line.
For Niles West, the start all but expected after finishing fourth in state last year, but this was not the case for the upstart Wildkits team, who finished with a 2-8 CSL South record just one year ago.
Ultimately, the Wolves prevailed, defeating Evanston 25-16, 25-18 to join New Trier as the only two unbeaten teams left in the conference.
Both teams came into the match featuring a plethora of hitting talent. Natalia Pehar for Niles West, and Maggie Sereika and Rosemary Gibbons for Evanston.
However, an early serving run from Niles West middle Nicole Zelazko saw the Wolves jump out to a 9-1 lead which prompted Evanston to substitute out Gibbons for some extra passing help.
The early substitution initially worked, as Evanston sured up their serve receive and started to find their rhythm cutting the lead down to 10-5.
But later in the set, Zelazko went on yet another serving run to reestablish a eleven point lead at 21-10 for the Wolves, as they eventually took the first set 25-16 thanks to their balanced attack.
“I think our attack speaks to the work our setters put in,” said Niles West interim coach Marko Kljajic.
“Passing was a little on and off in the beginning of the year and setters were kind of struggling to find a rhythm with their hitters but I think as we’ve gone through the year and tightened that up, it’s allowed our setters to be more comfortable to push the ball around.”
After the disappointing start to the match, Evanston started out the second set much improved. Their passing was on target which allowed them to find Sereika on back slides for two early kills.
The initial offensive outburst from Evanston was aided by a few Niles West errors. The Wildkits only trailed 9-7 at point, but did not take advantage of the opportunity, giving the momentum back to Niles West with multiple serving errors of their own.
Unlike Evanston, Niles West was able to capitalize on Evanston’s mistakes and after taking a 15-9 lead thanks to another Zelazko run, the Wolves kept their foot on the gas to take the set 25-18.
“Every loss that we had this year has been because of us. If you look at the stats, there are way too many unforced errors, which is ultimately what comes down to,” said Evanston coach Mallory Thelander.
“I think it’s completely mental and it also starts with the warmup. I think we had a terrible warmup tonight and that kind of set the standard for the rest of the game.”
Despite the loss for Evanston, they have already equaled their conference win total from last season, and will mostly likely far surpass it by the time conference season ends.
On the other side of things, Niles West seems to finally be living up to preseason expectations, and despite being without head coach Stacy Roth for the last six matches due to maternity leave, the transition from Roth to Kljajic has been seamless.
Kljajic said: “The girls and I had a good relationship when Stacy was here. I think we had a real nice balance so it’s been pretty smooth coming in and taking over. Stacy has built such a great program and these girls do so much work in the offseason that it’s been almost effortless.”
Evanston will host a non-conference match against Lake Forest on Friday while Niles West will resume conference play against district rivals Niles North next Tuesday.