AURORA — The best volleyball player in the school.
The best high school volleyball player in the state.
The best prep volleyball player in the nation.
Yeah, Lauren Carlini is all of that.
Although she is the epitome of excellence in her sport, she is also a shining example of the age-old expression, “Blossom where you’re planted.”
Many families with prodigy children trash the public school district in which they live. They will move to a neighboring community where the sports program — or coaching — is perceived as superior, or they will send their child to a private school.
The volleyball program at West Aurora has never ranked among the state’s elite. In its 40-year existence, there are no state trophies in the sport. From the time Carlini entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998 until the time she set foot on the campus as a freshman in the fall of 2009, West Aurora had not won a regional title in volleyball.
When Carlini was in seventh grade, the Blackhawks’ varsity volleyball record was 1-26.
And yet, it is the high school program that helped nurture the person chosen by prepvolleyball.com as the No. 1 prep player nationally. It is the program that helped develop a combination setter-hitter who has aspirations of playing in the 2020 Olympics. It is the program that turned out a teenager who is projected as an immediate impact player next year at Wisconsin.
Carlini headlines The News-Gazette’s 31st All-State Volleyball Team as the Player of the Year.
She was the catalyst on the school’s first regional championship team in 15 years as a senior. A loss in the sectional semifinals came against nationally ranked Lisle Benet (rated 14th this week by prepvolleyball.com), which won every postseason match in consecutive sets before reaching state, where it successfully defended its Class 4A championship.
As proud as she is about her personal achievements, Carlini is just as happy about how she contributed to a turnaround at her high school.
“I had never considered playing anywhere else, and I am glad I got the opportunity to put West Aurora back into the spotlight and put it in a better place than I found it,” Carlini said.
“The regional title that West Aurora won this year has so much meaning to all of the girls on the team. We had worked so hard all season. To finally win a regional title meant more to us than words can explain. We were ecstatic.”
Her high school team was part of a building block in a sport she has played at the club level she since was 6 years old and in first grade.
Her Sports Performance club program, under the direction of Rick Butler, has trained 10 athletes who have gone on to become The News-Gazette’s All-State Player of the Year. Five of those, including Carlini, have come in the past 12 years (Kelly Murphy, Tara Hester, Katie Bruzdzinski and Dani Nyenhuis.)
Carlini has refined her skills through her year-round commitment, but playing three months a year for a high school that wasn’t a traditional power was beneficial, too, Butler believes.
“It might have been a good thing,” Butler said. “It put a lot more responsibility on her shoulders. She was in a position where she couldn’t make mistakes.”
College coaches were well aware of Carlini long before she first put on a West Aurora uniform. She received her first recruiting letter when she was in seventh grade. It was from LSU.
That was a year after she flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as an 11-year-old without her parents (accompanied by a chaperone) to participate in a national age-group tournament with her Sports Performance club team.
In conjunction with her skills, the 6-foot-1 Carlini has one of the intangibles that coaches crave.
“Some kids are figuring out what they want,” Butler said. “She knows she wants to win. If they keep score, winning is important to her. Sometimes it’s hard to teach that competitive drive. She is hyper-competitive.”
John Tawa coordinates the national rankings for prepvolleyball.com. After watching Carlini — whom he rated No. 1 nationally at any position in the preseason — he reached conclusions similar to Butler’s.
“She is one of the most competitive ‘hate-to-lose’ players I have ever seen,” Tawa said.
Carlini also has an attitude that reflects her success.
“Each day, I try to get better, even if it is just infinitesimally, at both the setting and hitting parts of the game,” she said.
Tawa described Carlini as “the ultimate physical setter,” adding, “Her fitness level is extreme. You have to respect her offense so when she jumps to set, the defense must jump also, creating one-on-ones all over the court. Her blocking can shut down the best left-side attackers.”
Butler chuckles when asked about Carlini’s strengths. Where to begin, he wonders?
“Most players have weaknesses,” Butler said. “She doesn’t have any weaknesses. She is outstanding at every skill. She is extremely polished.
“She is one of those few kids who has a very high ceiling as a setter or hitter. She could play Division I as a hitter or setter, but she has elite-level setting potential, maybe as an Olympic setter.”
Starting club ball as a 6-year-old was a significant step, according to Butler.
“She has the tools, but she also has thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of experience,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t have that when they start at a later age.”
Gale Carlini was responsible for her daughter’s entrance into volleyball. After college, she remained active in a twice-a-week women’s league in West Chicago.
“I asked to be brought along,” Carlini said. “From the beginning, I loved playing volleyball, and I got used to being in the gym environment.”
Her daughter wasn’t running wild through the halls unsupervised while the adults played.
“She would pick up a ball and play against the wall when she was 3 and 4 years old,” Mom said. “She caught on quickly.”
Gale Carlini spent time with her, too, but intentionally didn’t make it easy.
“I’d hit balls at her hard and keep her moving,” she said. “I wanted her to learn early on that this game is all about quick reaction. I’ve always said, ‘It’s not an option for the ball to hit the floor.’ ”
When they weren’t at the gym, Carlini would have a ball at home.
“If only the walls and floors of our house could talk,” said father Anthony Carlini, an Itasca firefighter. “Relentless hours of serving, passing, setting, hitting against our stairway walls, dining room and family room walls; many hours of touch volleyball and pepper played in the front living room with my wife, myself and even her brother and sister.”
Even after watching his daughter play for more than a decade, Dad still marvels at what he sees.
“What impresses me most is how she makes plays out of nothing or plays that seem impossible,” Anthony Carlini said. “It’s like she has a sixth sense all the time when it comes to the volleyball court.”
At home, Gale Carlini doesn’t see the intense game face that is exhibited on the court.
“She is not shy in the least,” Mom said. “Lauren is a total comedian. She loves to make everybody laugh. She loves to make crazy faces.”
There is one thing, however, for which she doesn’t care.
“Lauren is extremely humble and doesn’t like it when we brag about her,” Mom said.
Volleyball helped Carlini develop as an athlete and as an individual.
“Very early, Lauren was able to talk with anyone with no problem,” Gale Carlini said. “I think that’s because she did stand out and people wanted to find out more about her.”
What they will learn is she has eclectic interests.
“I love reading about most anything, especially military books involving the Navy SEALs,” Carlini said. “I absolutely love driving. Whether it’s go-karts, a video game or my actual car, I love just driving around and listening to music.
“I’m convinced that if I wasn’t a volleyball player, I’d be a drag racer.”
News-Gazette All-State Players of the Year
YEAR PLAYER SCHOOL POS.
2012 Lauren Carlini West Aurora S/OH
2011 Meghan Niski St. Charles East OH
2010 Jocelynn Birks Lyons LaGrange OH
2009 AnneMarie Hickey Joliet Catholic OH
2008 Hannah Werth Chatham Glenwood OH/S
2007 Kelly Farrell Crystal Lake Central S
2006 Kelly Murphy Joliet Catholic S/OH
2005 Tara Hester Naperville Central OH
2004 Sarah Kwasigroch Sandburg S
2003 Katie Bruzdzinski Naperville North OH
2002 Meghan Macdonald Downers Grove South MH
2001 Dani Nyenhuis St. Charles East OH
2000 Ogonna Nnamani Normal U-High OH
1999 Ogonna Nnamani Normal U-High OH
1998 Elizabeth Gower Naperville Central S/OH
1997 Mia Perry Jacksonville OH
1996 Katie Schumacher Mother McAuley MH
1995 Ryann Connors Mother McAuley OH
1994 Tracy Black Downers Grove South OH
1993 Terri Zemaitis Downers Grove South MH
1992 Colleen Miniuk St. Charles OH
1991 Marnie Triefenbach Belleville West MH
1990 Marnie Triefenbach Belleville West MH
1989 Tina Rogers Mount Pulaski MH
1988 Eileen Shannon Immaculate Conception OH
1987 Julie Bremner Wheaton St. Francis S
1986 Laura Bush Stewardson-Strasburg MH
Get to know Lauren Carlini
Why she’s Player of the Year: Wisconsin recruit and three-year team captain led school to back-to-back DuPage Valley Conference titles. As a senior, had 333 kills, .462 hitting efficiency, 303 assists, 156 digs, 92 aces and 50 blocks. Prepvolleyball.com ranks Carlini as the No. 1 recruit nationally
Quoting Carlini: “As much as I like hitting, I love setting more. It is an amazing feeling setting up my hitters and watching them get those huge kills. That’s what makes me the most happy on the court. As a hitter, you get the spotlight and much more recognition, but that does not matter to me. I just want the satisfaction of helping my team, and winning.”
A few of my favorite things: Hot Wings ... Cold Stone ice cream ... Ray Lewis ... Psychology ... “Transformers” and “Avengers” ... Robert Downey Jr. ... Qdoba Mexican Grill ... Dodge Stratus ... On my bucket list, to travel overseas, to compete on the U.S. Olympic Team and to go whitewater rafting.
About Carlini: “Two years ago, she set for the USA Youth National Team, in Turkey. They beat China in the finals, and she was the MVP. If she has the kind of college career I think she will have, she will play professionally overseas. She is for sure at that level.” — Rick Butler, Sports Performance club coach