CHAMPAIGN — Cliff Hastings knows he's competing against unlimited candy and costumes tonight.
"For all those people who don't want to give out candy and want an excuse to be elsewhere," the Parkland volleyball coach said, "here's an option."
Here is Dodds Athletic Center, the home venue for the Cobras as they host Frontier at 6 p.m. tonight in a Region 24 semifinal match.
Two more wins and the Cobras will make a return trip to the NJCAA Division II national tournament next month, a familiar setting for the tradition-rich program that won national titles in 2015 and 2016 and placed fourth last year.
"It's fair to say that our expectations each year are to recruit and work at a level that puts us in the position to play for a national championship," Hastings said. "There's a lot of intangibles, some magic and a little bit of luck that have to get mixed in to give us that shot, but it's certainly what we maintain as our primary goal and focus."
So far, the Cobras have lived up to their potential this season, carrying a 51-2 record into tonight's match against Frontier.
Of those 51 wins, 45 have come via three-set sweeps.
But it was Parkland's first loss of the season — a four-set defeat against Johnson County (Kan.) on Sept. 7 — that might have provided a solid lesson for this group of Cobras.
"I always push them to call balls in or out, and I'm emphatic that I'll never get upset or critique if they guess wrong," Hastings said. "We were receiving serve in this match, the ball was deep and nobody on the bench wanted to call it, so silence prevailed. The ball hit the endline, and we fell behind. That might have been my first timeout of the year, and I was about as heated as I get when coaching."
In the end, though, Hastings got his message across.
"I saw red and admit that it may not have been my most composed one minute and 15 seconds of discussion with a team," Hastings said. "If there's a silver lining, we haven't had that problem again."
A roster full of almost exclusively Illinois natives has the second-ranked Cobras on track to make a splash at the national level once again.
"I personally enjoy the heterogeneous makeup of some of our previous teams with different countries, different states and different backgrounds," Hastings said. "I like it because it represents the real world, and the kids are always learning about different customs or geographical events outside of our area. But with this year's group being a bit more local, it's nice that we have so much parent and family support all the time. Whether we're playing at Parkland or out of state, the parents have been able to build a great rapport and be a caravan of fans for the girls."
Local products who have contributed to Parkland's success this year are Maddie Allen (Tuscola), Abigail Burnett (St. Joseph-Ogden), Maranda Day (Champaign Central), Dakota Harmon (Centennial), Katelyn Riffle (Paxton-Buckley-Loda) and Gabby Wessels (Cissna Park).
Wessels is second on the team with 311 kills, Riffle is fourth with 259 kills and Harmon is second in blocks with 146. Add in solid contributions from Allen (149 kills, 130 blocks) and Burnett (125 kills), and the area talent is crucial to Parkland.
Yet it's the improved play of Riffle that stands out to Hastings.
"In high school, I always found her to be a fairly mediocre middle and presence," he said. "She has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but it just wasn't built for being a middle, and I don't think she knew a lot about how to capitalize on her assets. She spent her freshman season learning, growing and building her game. More than just the physical, she was learning about the mental and emotional parts of the game. Now, in her sophomore year, she went from probably being one of the least-recognized players in the area for high school volleyball to one of the best right sides in the country at our level."
Helping run the dynamic Parkland offense is setter Rachel Verdun. The Edwardsville product leads the country at the D-II level with 1,453 assists.
"Rachel is tremendous," Hastings said. "She is smart, athletic, has tremendous work ethic and just plain knows how to win. She responds the same to compliments as she does to criticism."
If Parkland is able to beat Frontier tonight and win the Region 24 title on Saturday in Godfrey, a trip to the national tournament from Nov. 15-17 in Charleston, W. Va., is in store for the Cobras.
Where expectations of returning to Champaign with more hardware and a possible third national title in the last four seasons would greet Parkland.
"In the recruiting process, the girls are drawn to the success, and we try to do a good job of preparing them ahead of time for the hard work it takes," Hastings said. "We're always working together to figure out when to push, when to relax and when to be patient. If we push all the time, we'll burn out. If we relax all the time, we'll not be ready to attain that goal. To the outside world, it often looks like we just smile, show up, win and repeat. To these girls' credit — and to the teams before them — their work ethic in practice, in the classroom and in the weight room to get them to this point is at an incredibly high level."