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
YEAR NAME SCHOOL POS.
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