N-G All-State Player of the Year: Niego's on the grand stage

N-G All-State Player of the Year: Niego's on the grand stage

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Charley Niego spent the end of last week in the epicenter of all things volleyball.

At least for a few days.

The big draw, of course, was the Final Four of the NCAA tournament — particularly with eventual champions Nebraska involved. The 'Huskers can draw a crowd in the Midwest.

Niego had some volleyball of her own to play.

The Mother McAuley senior earned First Team AVCA Under Armour All-American honors. That secured her a spot in Friday's Under Armour All-America match where her five kills, eight digs and an ace helped the East to a five-set victory.

Niego appreciates the individual honors that have come her way. She does. The All-American honors and being named Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois last season are special in their own way.

But Niego is very much a team-first person. That was almost — but only almost — to a fault this fall.

One of the few returning starters back from the Mighty Macs' 2016 Class 4A state champion team, Niego wanted to do everything in her power to help her younger teammates this season. Mother McAuley coach Jen DeJarld wanted to make sure Niego — the team's go-to player — was still taking care of her own game to ensure she played to her full potential.

A balance was ultimately struck in late September.

Mother McAuley didn't lose from Sept. 30 until its 4A super-sectional showdown with eventual state champs Marist on Nov. 3. Niego led the way, and the Notre Dame-bound outside hitter added another individual honor to her lengthy list of them as the 2017 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year.

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Mother McAuley couldn't have done much more in 2016 save for a perfect season. As it stood, the Mighty Macs lost just once on their way to their record-setting 15th state championship, and their 40-1 record against a national schedule made them the inaugural champions in the USA TODAY Sports/AVCA Super 25.

That banner went up right alongside Niego's Gatorade Player of the Year banner before Mother McAuley opened the 2017 season on Aug. 22 with a three-set win against Joliet Catholic.

"She hated the fact that we hung her Gatorade Player of the Year banner at the beginning of the season," DeJarld said. "She thought that was just going to happen after she graduated."

That's just part of what DeJarld said is his Niego's humble nature. She'd prefer the focus be off herself and on her team. Always.

All of last season's success, though, built to a point where DeJarld felt Niego was trying to do it all this fall for the Mighty Macs.

"All of these accolades she had, I think she felt a lot of pressure coming into the season of trying to put the team on her back and do everything," DeJarld said. "Once we got past that, I think her game really opened up more."

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Mother McAuley lost nine seniors from its 2016 state championship team. Four ended up moving on to college volleyball careers.

In their place was mostly sophomores, including four starters. The Mother McAuley coaches relied on Niego to help teach the newcomers.

"Coming to practice every day and being competitive and going for every ball and working hard, after the sophomores saw that, they started taking after me and all the other seniors and returning players," Niego said. "I didn't know how to handle it sometimes. As the season went on, I built more trust in my teammates."

Still, it took a midseason conversation between DeJarld and her senior leader to get the point across that sometimes what was best for the Mighty Macs was Niego being a dominant force as an outside hitter.

"She just wasn't focusing on herself enough and just playing her position and playing it to the best of her ability," DeJarld said. "We had a talk, and she kind of broke down a little bit and released that stress."

A 15-match winning streak ensued and Niego finished her senior season by leading Mother McAuley with 456 kills, 366 digs and 81 blocks.

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Niego's next stop isn't too terribly far from home. Less than 100 miles, actually.

After committing to Notre Dame in the spring of her sophomore year, Niego signed with the Fighting Irish in November primed to be part of the continuing rebuild.

The Irish went 7-25 during coach Jim McLaughlin's first season in 2015, but won 22 matches in each of the past two and made the NCAA tournament this past season.

"I didn't really want to go much to a school that already had a great program," Niego said. "I wanted to be a part of a school that was getting to be a great program and be a part of that. I'm really excited to get on campus in a few months. I know it's going to be hard to try and get a starting position. I'm just excited."

Notre Dame will lose six seniors from the team that got the Irish back to the NCAA tournament. That the graduating group includes outside hitter Sydney Kuhn (fourth in kills in 2017) opens up a spot in the rotation.

"I know for a fact the coaches are really looking forward to having her come and be an impact in their program," said DeJarld, whose daughter Ryann will be a senior libero for the Irish next season. "She obviously will have to fight for it, but I think with her all-around skills so strong she is going to, I think, have the ability to make an impact right away."

Meet our Player of the Year

Charley Niego, Mother McAuley

Why she's Player of the Year: The 6-foot-1 outside hitter capped a standout three-year career with Mother McAuley by leading a young Mighty Macs team to a 35-5 record and a Class 4A super-sectional appearance after winning a state title in 2016 on a senior-laden team. A top 100 prospect in the country and a six-rotation threat, Mother McAuley leaned on Niego all season long.

Season highlights: Niego earned all-tournament honors at Rich East, ASICS Challenge and Glenbard East Autumnfest as Mother McAuley's go-to attacking option. She compiled 456 kills and 42 aces, but was just as effective defensively with 366 digs and 81 blocks. Niego was key for the Mighty Macs in an 11-match winning streak in September and a longer 15-match winning streak that got Mother McAuley to the Elite Eight in 4A.

Niego at a glance:Favorite volleyball player: I like (former Tennessee and Nebraska standout turned Team USA star) Kelsey Robinson. She went to Wheaton St. Francis, so she's local. ... Best concert ever attended: Lake Shake. It's a country concert. ... Dream car: A white Jeep. ... Favorite restaurant: I like Palermo's in Oak Lawn. ... Favorite show to Netflix binge: Criminal Minds. ... Last movie seen: Wonder. ... Favorite class at Mother McAuley: Math. It's my favorite subject because I like when I understand it. ... What I'll miss most about high school volleyball: The coaches and the tradition, definitely. ... Best part about playing for coach Jen DeJarld: No matter who you are or what you've done she always pushes you to be the best you can be. ... Nickname: Some people call me Char.

About Niego: "I wish Charley was here today. Charley has a complete skill set at this point in her development and has good physical abilities. Her arm is fast and she hits a very heavy ball, but what I appreciate most about her is her intensity and energy. The best players that I've coached have had a unique level of intensity and energy. Charley has that special gift and if she uses it correctly, there will be no limits on how far she takes her ability." — Notre Dame coach Jim McLaughlin to FloVolleyball.com.