POY Birks maintains ties to Illinois

POY Birks maintains ties to Illinois

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Meet our 29th News-Gazette All-State team here

LaGRANGE – Jocelynn Birks always has known what she's wanted.

In her younger years, she didn't waver when presenting her wish list.

"I would ask for teaching supplies for Christmas and my birthday," Birks said, "and I would play teacher in my room with my friends."

Then there was a task of picking a sport of preference.

"I tried just about everything when I was young," Birks said. "I was too tall to be any good at gymnastics. Soccer was too much running back and forth."

She showed some promise in basketball but developed a passion for volleyball.

"I didn't want to continue (basketball) through high school because of club volleyball," the 6-foot-3 Birks said.

As she developed skills to match her love for volleyball, it became clear there'd be another choice to make. Which university to attend to study education and play her favorite sport?

She communicated via e-mail with "a bunch of schools" and visited three: Illinois, Ohio State and Purdue. Before she had even completed the junior portion of her high school season, Birks made an oral commitment to the Illini.

"After a couple visits, I just knew Illinois was where I wanted to be," she said. "I loved the coaches, and the way they run their program was so much more than just volleyball. They actually care about you as a person and are like one big family."

In an important sense, it made Birks feel right at home.

"I'm really close with my family, and I think it's really important to have the girls you play with be like a second family," Birks said. "That is what I know I will have when I am at Illinois next year."

The Illini know what they will have, too: the player who headlines the 29th News-Gazette All-State volleyball team as Player of the Year. Birks is the second Player of the Year in the past 20 seasons to select Illinois. The other was Downers Grove South's Meghan Macdonald in 2002.

Prior to 1990, however, two of the first four All-State Players of the Year picked Illinois: Class 1A standouts Tina Rogers, from Mount Pulaski in 1989, and Laura Bush, from Stewardson-Strasburg in 1986.

Though Birks made her college choice well in advance of her senior season, LaGrange Lyons coach Joann Pyritz didn't see any less effort or drive from her outside hitter, who finished with the second-most number of kills in school history.

"It crosses every coach's mind," Pyritz said, "but she has always been careful and concerned about her high school team and about other people. She has excelled, but she very much emphasized the team and team development."

The Lions' team achieved at the highest level. In Birks' final match, she had 18 kills to lead Lyons Township to a three-set triumph against the nation's top-ranked team, previously unbeaten Cary-Grove, in last weekend's Class 4A state championship match.

"She was in her element," Pyritz said. "She attacked the ball out of the middle, instead of staying on the outside. She had some great defensive pickups and passed well. Her aggressive serving against Cary gave us some significant points."

Birks was promoted to the Lyons varsity as a sophomore, but she was on Pyritz's radar screen prior to that.

"When she was a freshman, our freshman coach (Dawn Schabacker) said, 'This girl is gonna be good. She has the potential to be something really special on varsity,' " Pyritz related.

And in case that prediction escaped from the coach's memory bank, Schabacker is still on staff and was on the bench last weekend for the team's crowning achievement. "She often reminds me that she said, 'this girl is the one who will make the difference,' " Pyritz said.

Besides Birks' ability to put the ball on the court, Pyritz finds another endearing trait.

"She is very modest, very unassuming," she said. "She wants her teammates to receive notoriety."

Typical of her nature, Birks said the credit for the 41-1 state championship season – which ended on a 21-match winning streak – should be shared among numerous squad members.

"I think maybe the players who didn't get to play in a lot of games, but played against us in practice, had a lot to do with the outcome of the season," Birks said. "They all worked so hard and made it easy for us to play them like it was a real game situation."

As for her improvement, it can be shown by the amount of time she's now able to spend on the court. Birks improved her defense to the extent that she became an indispensable player for Pyritz rather than simply a front-row threat.

"This year, I could not part with Jocelynn being out of the game," Pyritz said. "Her all-around game has certainly stepped up. Last year, she played back row, but every now and then, I gave her a break."

Pyritz is unsure what role Birks will fill for the Illini, but she believes there could be consideration to keeping her on the court for all six rotations.

"I can't imagine passing by the offensive threat she could provide," Pyritz said. "Her (back-row) attack will be valuable."

One aspect Birks enjoys most about her sport is the team camaraderie.

"I love the way the girls you play with are like your family," she said, "which is a huge thing that drew me into the sport."

After a one-year break, she will be reunited with one of her "family" members. Lyons teammate Alexis Viliunas – an All-State second-teamer despite missing nearly 20 matches this season – also has committed to the Illini.

"Alexis made the decision on her own, but I think knowing I would be there was a big comfort for her," Birks said. "I think she saw the same thing I saw when I visited and loved the school as well."

The first part of Birks' future is determined as she hopes to make immediate contributions to the nationally ranked Illini program. "I will never stop working as hard as I can to become better at every aspect of the game," she said.

She hopes the second part of her future follows her game plan as well.

"In 10 to 15 years, I hope I will have a job teaching fifth- or sixth-graders," she said. "I have always wanted to be a teacher. Not once have I ever doubted that."

There are no doubts, either, in volleyball about the state's premier player.

Getting to know ... Jocelynn Birks
I need concert tickets to see ... Justin Bieber.
Movie I’m dying to see ... “Never Say Never”
I’m always texting ... Grace Trilla.
What I’m driving ... Four-door Jeep Wrangler
Before I compete, I ... don’t eat. I color.
A perfect Saturday night would be ... eating honey chipotle chicken crispers from Chili’s while watching “Step Brothers.” 
My first job was ... babysitting.
Favorite athlete ... Michael Jordan
Three people I would like to have dinner with ...  Justin Bieber, Will Ferrell and Channing Tatum.

N-G Players of the Year
2010    Jocelynn Birks    LaGrange Lyons    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    MS

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kfj wrote on November 18, 2010 at 8:11 am

Great article!

oandb wrote on November 18, 2010 at 9:11 am

great sign for the Illini. Her respect for everyone is amazing. congrats to the volleyball program and Illinois.