Likas | A volley of talent at area programs

Likas | A volley of talent at area programs

Champaign County and prep volleyball. Right now, they go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Mica Allison is off at Auburn after a successful career with St. Thomas More.

Former St. Joseph-Ogden standout Kylie Michael — who preceded Allison as The News-Gazette's Player of the Year in 2016 and 2015 — enters her redshirt freshman season at Eastern Illinois.

Allison's former teammate, Allie Trame, is committed to Alabama before her junior high school season even begins.

Champaign Central boasts two players receiving Division I interest in senior Rylee Hinton (committed to Illinois) and sophomore Mira Chopra (undecided). Mahomet-Seymour senior Savannah Matthews plans to compete at Kent State.

On the most basic level, it would be easy to surmise things have never been better for the sport when it comes to the local prep scene.

Talk to some of the coaches in the know, though, and you get a different opinion. In a good way.

"I think Champaign's always been a super-hot spot," said Stan Bergman, who led STM to a Class 2A state championship last year. "Right now, it just seems like we have a concentration of kids who are going to and understanding that next level. Maybe it's an above-average (time)."

"Central Illinois has always had a good volleyball culture," added Andy Erins, director of the Bloomington-based Illini Elite volleyball club. "I think there's an interest for players to pursue volleyball, whether more recreationally or whether they want to pursue opportunities in college. I think it's there for them, and that's not the case everywhere."

Still, it would be hard not to notice the quality of talent that will suit up for area programs in 2018.

How did prep volleyball in Champaign County arrive at this point?

* * * 

It shouldn't come as a surprise that no two athletes take the same path into full-time involvement with a specific sport.

That being said, similarities exists among the stories of Trame, Hinton, Chopra and Matthews — volleyball just sort of happened.

Recently, Chopra described how volleyball was not her first athletic venture, how she figured she'd give it a shot because "tall girls played volleyball."

Trame fell into a similar mold before starring at middle back on the Sabers' state-champion squad.

* * * 

"If you're tall, you play every sport you can," the 6-foot-1 Trame said. "I just liked volleyball because it's a true team sport. Basketball, your team can have one or two good players and be OK. But in volleyball, everybody has to be good."

Hinton, a middle hitter for the Maroons, couldn't find an exact explanation for the creation of her volleyball passion.

"I started in sixth grade. It was kind of a last-minute, spontaneous thing — right before tryouts, I just decided to go out," Hinton said. "I played basketball and tennis. I was OK with those sports — good at them, but not obsessed. I was obsessed with volleyball."

Matthews, an outside hitter for the Bulldogs, didn't even turn to volleyball until a unique family moment.

"One night, my mom and I were sitting down going through old videos, and she pulled out a volleyball one," Matthews said. "And I was like, 'Wow, I want to be like that.'"

That gets us to a starting point: Four girls with talents waiting to be unlocked pick the sport of their respective futures.

Unlocking those talents is the next step.

* * *

Illini Elite's website says it all: 270-plus alumni playing collegiately, 35 AAU All-Americans since 2007 and three AAU national champions.

This quartet of girls, at the very least, is planting itself within that top number.

"The biggest thing, probably, is college coaches know we have a pretty good track record and a lot of success with kids playing in college," Erins said. "We do a pretty good job of training well-rounded players."

Erins is clear about one addendum to these thoughts, though: "It happens over time — it doesn't happen overnight."

By her own admission, Trame experienced a noticeable shift in her volleyball abilities while playing for Illini Elite during the summer between her freshman and sophomore seasons.

"There was definitely a big difference," Trame said. "(Erins is) a really great coach. He pushes you really hard and makes you think about literally everything. It's really good being there."

And this club setup doesn't merely exist to make athletes more attractive to high-level volleyball programs. Erins and his staff teach those in their charge how to put themselves on the map in the first place.

"I think it was the first parent meeting, Andy was talking to parents about how to get recruited," Matthews said. "(Messages are) not just going to roll into your inbox — I had to send out at least 20 emails a day. Then, ever since I've been reaching out to them, they've reached back out to me."

Illini Elite also offers an opportunity for the area's best to form friendships, which also creates fun rivalries during the high school season.

"I'm actually really good friends with Mira. I actually worked out with her two minutes ago," Trame said earlier this week. "It's really fun being on the same team. We know each other so well that it helps us push each other."

* * *

Let's take this back to the prep ranks, where these girls can hone their craft over a larger portion of any given year.

Despite all of these athletes being on the D-I track, none of them felt terribly confident about how they broke into volleyball.

"I didn't know what I was doing (at first), to be honest," Hinton said. "I was doing my best and seeing how far I could take it. I was just going with the flow."

Hinton made the jump from Maroons junior varsity to the program's top level during her sophomore year, when she said "everything fell into place" on the court.

Matthews, meanwhile, learned prior to her freshman stint with the Bulldogs she might already be at the varsity level. Her reaction?

"It was terrifying," Matthews said with a laugh. "I had a heart attack I was so scared. But all the girls were so welcoming there during open gyms. I was worried I was going to mess up, but the family atmosphere there is incredible."

Once the M-S staff started allowing Matthews to supplant older teammates in the Bulldogs' lineup, Matthews said, she realized she was doing the things coaches wanted to see.

It took Trame some time to feel the same about her own efforts.

"When I was younger, I didn't think I'd be very good," Trame said. "I really didn't know going in because I didn't know how I compared to the other girls."

Growth from junior high to high school, along with playing on a talented Sabers roster, permitted Trame to start feeling confident in her game.

To Bergman, this was no surprise.

"She's very easy to coach because she really does try to please whatever coach she's working with," Bergman said. "Her maturity shows with that because it's like, 'I get it, let's try it.'"

* * *

Flash forward to the present. Hinton, Matthews and Trame all are reigning News-Gazette All-Area first-team athletes, while Chopra was a solid second-team choice last fall.

All four automatically will be looked to as difference-makers should their teams succeed, with practices opening on Wednesday. Being in the D-I spotlight will create that perception.

If Erins and Bergman are correct, more local stars will gain major-college attention for their serves, kills, blocks, digs and the like.

"For sure. Right now, definitely," Matthews said. "If you asked me that my freshman year, I'd be like, 'What? I don't think so.' But now, everyone is getting really heavily into club and stuff like that.

"I've seen a bunch of younger players grow. It's crazy to see the progress they've made."

Preps coordinator Colin Likas writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com or on Twitter at clikasNG.

Viewing power

The 2018 prep volleyball season begins Wednesday, with the first date of any possible match slated for Aug. 20. Here are three area bouts worth keeping an eye on in the regular season:

Aug. 21: Mahomet-Seymour at Champaign Central

Division I starpower dots this match, as Kent State commit Savannah Matthews visits Illinois commit Rylee Hinton and D-I target Mira Chopra at Combes Gym in a rematch from last year's Class 3A regional championship.

Aug. 30: Tri-Valley at St. Thomas More

These Class 2A foes slugged it out in a sectional final last year, with the Sabers pulling out a three-set triumph en route to the state championship. The rematch should be thrilling viewing.

Oct. 9: Blue Ridge at Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond

This one could go under the radar, but both clubs garnered top-three postseasons seeds last year and have plenty of notable returnees. This is a stout midseason test for teams with upward aspirations.