Polling place: Studying about native volleyball from athletes, coaches and extra | Sports activities

Who is your team’s biggest rival?

Mira Chopra (Champaign Central senior): “Probably Mahomet-Seymour because whenever we play them, it is always a really good game. And they are in our regional, too, so we usually play them for the championship or before that.”

Caroline Kerr (St. Thomas More junior): “We try to not overanalyze any game and approach the game focusing on our side of the net, so I wouldn’t say we have any true rivals.”

Anna McClure (St. Thomas More junior): “St. Joseph-Ogden, because they always have a strong program and we historically have had great battles against them. Both schools bring a ton of fans, and it’s always a fun atmosphere to play in.”

Kennedi Burnett (St. Joseph-Ogden junior): “St. Thomas More has always been a rival because they have many talented players who are very well-coached. They always bring great competition to the court.”

Addison Oyer (Paxton-Buckley-Loda junior): “Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. We both equally want to beat each other with a strong passion, and always end up having really good and intense games. Fans don’t tend to come to as many away games, but when we play Gibson in their gym, we have so many people show up to cheer us on. When we play Gibson, we tend to be a stronger team because of our competitive spirit.”

Stan Bergman (second-year Mahomet-Seymour coach): “Mahomet’s biggest rival in more recent years has probably been Champaign Central. In my first year, I would agree to that. I feel Centennial/Central has a bigger one. At St. Thomas More (where he previously coached for four seasons), it was St. Joseph-Ogden.”

Crystal Buckler (sixth-year Tri-County coach): “Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond is and has been our biggest rival over the past several years. ALAH’s coach does well at teaching and coaching her players to play at their fullest potential.”

Anna Showers (first-year Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin coach): “We play a lot of schools this season that have some great players; Milford, Decatur St. Teresa and Oakwood come to mind.”

Rhonda Bleecher (mother of Unity junior Emma Bleecher): “We really have two: St. Joseph-Ogden and St. Thomas More. If I had to pick between them, STM is the game the girls are always most excited to play each year. The competitive level of play that we see against STM is always higher than most of the schools that we face. The girls approach this match with the mental mindset that they will have a three-set battle with STM. There are no easy points and there is little to no room for unforced errors.”

What’s the biggest on-court rivalry you’ve seen?

Jerry Cook (St. Joseph resident; officiated at 2016 and 2018 IHSA state finals): “St. Joseph-Ogden versus St. Thomas More, as both schools have amazing fans and student sections, and with that level of play, it makes for an awesome match to officiate.”

What’s the most memorable high school volleyball match you’ve been part of?

Chopra: “Definitely the regional championship my sophomore year. We played Unity, and the game was at Unity. I remember the student sections for both teams were massive, and the theme for our student section was ‘blackout.’ The game went to three sets, and we ended up winning the regional title. It was by far the most fun high school match I played in because of the electric atmosphere.”

Kerr: “Beating SJ-O in the sectional championship my freshman year after losing to them earlier that season.”

McClure: “Beating SJ-O to win the sectional final my freshman year. We had lost to them earlier in the season, so it felt great to win against such a strong team.”

Burnett: “Playing Chicago Christian for super-sectionals (in 2019) was by far the most memorable match. The atmosphere and the three-set comeback win on their home court was unbelievable, allowing us to advance to state.”

Oyer: “My first conference match as a freshman on varsity. It was one of the most nerve-racking things I had ever done in my life. I remember worrying about making mistakes, and I didn’t want to make any of the upperclassmen mad. We ended up winning with ease, and I played pretty decent. I think that match had given me more understanding of the game and the intensity.”

Bergman: “My first time at the IHSA state series in 2012 (with Centennial), but the 2017 state championship (with STM) has just as much importance.”

Buckler: “Beating Edwards County in 2017 in the sectional semifinals. This was a big win for my girls. It was a game-changer for several of my girls in their years to come. Their confidence levels as individuals increased to allow them to become more successful and build as a team.”

Showers: “This one is hard to answer, considering this is my first year coaching prep volleyball. This year has been a year of typical ‘firsts’ as a coach, and some incredibly unusual ‘firsts’ as a coach that I never thought I would experience. I am just genuinely looking forward to competing on a court in any match we can get played this season.”

Bleecher: “The Champaign Central match in the regional championship played at Unity in 2018. That was a three-set thriller until the last point. The teams were fairly well-matched and traded points for most of the match. The energy level in the gym, with both student crowds, was almost electric.”

Cook: “Super-sectional (in 2016), SJ-O versus Deer Creek-Mackinaw. The entire experience, with great students and fans and phenomenal play from both teams.”

What’s one location you always look forward to visiting?

Chopra: “Schools like Normal West, Normal Community and Bloomington because their student sections are always big, and a lot of my club teammates play for those teams, so it is fun to play against them.”

Kerr: “I always look forward to playing at Unity because they’re great competition and always have lots of fans.”

McClure: “I’ve only played there once, but Redbird Arena for the state tournament was awesome. I hope to play there again before I graduate.”

Burnett: “The Rocket Center at Unity because their crowd always brings intensity and a fun rivalry match to be a part of.”

Oyer: “Fisher is one of the locations I look forward to playing at. My dad grew up in Fisher, so I get to play for my other side of the family. It makes me happy to play for my family and make them proud.”

Bergman: “I always enjoyed going to the Lincoln-Way Central volleyball tournament. It had Chicago-area 3A-4A schools there, so it was competitive and fun. I really liked the trip up, playing Friday night, having a team dinner and playing three (matches) on Saturday so it felt like you got away for a weekend. Plus, the hospitality room always had Chicago pizza there — yummy.”

Buckler: “I am a homebody, so I always look forward to playing in our home gyms.”

Showers: “I thrive off of upbeat, energetic gyms, whether it’s the fans, the players, etc. But the energy in the gym is a total game-changer in the way we play as a team. This year, it is going to be a challenge to create that energy without the usual gym atmosphere during our matches.”

Bleecher: “I really enjoy playing at SJ-O. They really have a great student section and bring the energy to the gym.”

Cook: “SJ-O provides a unique atmosphere with the student section, fans and the level of play year after year. When officiating at SJ-O, you need to bring your A-game.”

Where’s one location you haven’t visited yet, but would like to in the future?

Chopra: “St. Thomas More, because they have a good team, and I feel like if we played them, it would be a fun and competitive match.”

Kerr: “I would love to play at Champaign Central soon and play a crosstown team that has a successful volleyball team.”

McClure: “I can’t wait to play at Covelli Center at Ohio State after I graduate.”

Burnett: “Decatur St. Teresa because I have never set foot on their court. They have a strong volleyball talent, which always leads to a tough match.”

Oyer: “Monticello. We have always played Monticello at home, and it would be nice to see how their fan section affects their playing, since they are already a great team. They also have a new gym, which would be fun to play in.”

Bergman: “I have played in so many tournaments all over the state, except for the St Louis area. That might be fun to do a Friday/Saturday invite, then go to a Cardinals game that night or Sunday.”

Buckler: “Redbird Arena. I had the opportunity to play there in high school and want to be able to experience it as a coach, as well as my players getting the experience to play in the state championship.”

Showers: “All of them. However, there will definitely be a feeling of nostalgia for me at our first home match, when I am on the court in Wilcox Gym at BHRA as the head coach, rather than a player (which was a long time ago).”

Bleecher: “I would like to see Unity play at Pleasant Plains. We have competed against them in tournament play, but not yet in their gym. Pleasant Plains is always very competitive, and their fan base always seems to travel to support their girls.”

Cook: “Huff Gym, the home of the Fighting Illini. I have watched many volleyball matches from the stands but would love to officiate on the floor, just to experience the thrill.”

Which athlete currently on your team are you lucky you don’t have to compete against?

Chopra: “Katy Shockey because she is my BFF.”

Kerr: “Colleen Hege. She is super quick and digs a lot of balls, making it super hard for the other team to score.”

McClure: “Definitely Caroline Kerr. She’s an incredible player and hard to read defensively. I am glad to be to on the same side of the net as her every day.”

Burnett: “Payton Vallee because she is an experienced senior and an amazing competitor. She always brings intensity and intelligence to the court.”

Oyer: “Definitely my libero, Makayla Klann. Her passing skills are amazing, and I feel like she could dig any ball that comes to our side. I feel like I would be less effective for my team if I had to play against her. We can’t have a good offense without a good defense.”

Bergman: “This year it is Ainsley Ranstead. She has so many different shots that it is hard to defend her. She is really smart, so that makes her even better because she can really pick her shot.”

Buckler: “Kaylenn Hunt. She is one of those players that has so much talent no matter where she is at on the court. Also knowing that she committed to Bradley University as a junior is phenomenal.”

Showers: “Sophia Rome. She is an all-around great athlete, but she is also incredibly smart when she plays. Her court vision and awareness when she is on the court are top-notch, and she will make good decisions in each play as well as adjust how she plays to each team we play. If she sees the line is open, she’ll go for it. After a few plays, she will find a team’s weakness and she will go for it.”

Bleecher: “Proudly, I will say Emma Bleecher. She really sees the court well and knows that her primary role on the court as an outside hitter is to score points. She can tool a block, tip a ball, (hit) a roll shot and swing away for points in both the front and back row. Her skill set and ball placement for points often come at key times in a match. I have often heard her teammates say they would hate to have to play against her.”

Which athlete in your career has been hardest to officiate?

Cook: “Mica Allison with St. Thomas More and setter for four years. She was so quick and strong as a setter and hitter. She could see the court and knew exactly where to place the ball. Her level of play would leave you in awe at the high school level.”

Which athlete on an opposing team is or was always tough to compete against?

Chopra: “Leah Luchinski, who is a senior setter at Centennial, because she has a high volleyball IQ and makes tricky plays and really good sets that are hard to read sometimes.”

Kerr: “Leah Luchinski from Centennial is a great player and leader and makes playing defense against her team very hard.”

McClure: “I would have to name two: Emma Bleecher from Unity and Kennedi Burnett from St. Joseph-Ogden. I am thankful I am able to play club at Illini Elite with both players.”

Burnett: “Caroline Kerr from St. Thomas More. Caroline is an extremely smart player who reads and controls the court well from her setter position. She is a great role model and leader who holds her teammates accountable.”

Oyer: “(Unity’s) Emma Bleecher and her team have always been tough to play. Emma is a really good offensive and defensive player. Just when we think we are beating the Rockets, Emma comes through with a hard hit or a good shot. Last season, we were winning the first set of regionals against Unity, but ended up losing the match because of her athleticism and confidence.”

Bergman: “That would be hard to pick. There are so many wonderful players at all the schools in the area. Centennial has a really good setter and outside hitter. Central has a couple amazing middles. SJ-O always has a team full. STM has two D-I players. Tuscola and Urbana have a few really good freshmen to look out for. Monticello, Paxton-Buckley-Loda. So I have to plan for so many good players that it is hard to just pick one.”

Bleecher: “Without a doubt, Caroline Kerr at STM. She is a solid six-rotation setter who knows how to command her team. Her front-row skills are solid. She can block, attack the ball and set on a dime. Her serve is difficult to receive, and her defense is outstanding.”

Which athlete in your officiating career would be hardest to compete against?

Cook: “Mia McDonald, a setter at Champaign Central. Mia brought her A-game to the floor every night. She was such a great setter, floor-smart and very competitive in every rotation.”

Which athlete in your school’s history do you hear the most about?

Chopra: “Rylee Hinton, who plays at the University of Illinois. I played with her at Central during my freshman and sophomore seasons, and we became very close during that time. I have recently heard she is doing really well at Illinois, and I am excited to play against her next year in college (with the University of Michigan).”

Kerr: “Haley Elam, who graduated in 2019, was a great leader for this program, always gave her best and was always cheering everybody on. We want to be a great teammate like Haley.”

McClure: “Mica Allison was such a great leader and player for STM. It is fun to watch her compete currently for Illinois.”

Burnett: “Kylie Michael was a starting contributor and leader who played a huge role for her team for four years. Her talent led her team to many victories during her SJ-O volleyball career.”

Oyer: “Sarah Watts. When playing volleyball, I wanted to continue raising my skill level and a good way of doing that was looking up to a past player that was successful. Sara had the kill record at PBL and was an outside, so I wanted to emulate her play. This gave me a goal to make me play harder, which led me to break her record.”

Bergman: “I have so many fond memories of so many players that I bring up several of them. I think it is reasonable to say that those that are more recent are brought up more. Twenty years ago, I would mention Koree Claxton or Christy Ottmers. Fifteen years ago, it was Shannon VanAntwerp or Kelly Schmidt. Ten years ago, it was Cory Harris or Melanie Moore or Sara Dalbey. Then any of the kids from the 2012 class. Maya Peacock or Ayla Dew, then the STM years and most recently Mica Allison or Lexi Hall or Jaime Johnson. So, I have been very lucky to have been able to be a part in all these kids mentioned and not mentioned throughout the years. It would be very hard to pick one but the most recent kids are those that I am asked about, so Mica Allison would be a more frequent topic.”

Buckler: “Grace Burnside. She is a player who is unforgettable, and I am able to use her as an example to current players on her work ethic and her passion to become successful. She was a great teammate to all and loved her sports.”

Showers: “I don’t spend too much time specifically on one player from the past. I will mention different previous players depending on the situation. For example, I will mention a libero or DS from the past who excelled at their position and share how and why they were as good as they were.”

Bleecher: “I don’t often hear about past players, but I have heard mention of Ana Deters, Lexi and Dani Gooch and the rest of the Unity team from 2008 state team, for their work ethic, determination and athletic ability. I do hear people talk about the legacy that Coach (Liz) Osborn created for Unity volleyball. Coach Osborn’s level of success is what each team since has been challenged to match.”

Which athlete in your officiating career have you heard talked about most?

Cook: “This is dependent each year, as the game of volleyball has evolved so quickly over the last 15 years. As with fans, officials talk, and we know from year to year who the great players are and where they are playing at the next level. To single out one player would be unfair to all the amazing student-athletes that I have had the honor of officiating.”

Which opposing team’s mascot do you like the most?

Chopra: “I don’t like any other team’s mascot besides the Maroons.”

Kerr: “The Fisher Bunnies have the best mascot because they are very original.”

McClure: “I have always loved the New Berlin’s Pretzel mascot. I love pretzels.”

Burnett: “There’s not one mascot that completely stands out in our conference, but each one gives us a chance to compete and beat out our toughest opponents.”

Oyer: “The Clifton Central Comets. I find it so cool how they call their gym “The Crater,” and it looks as if a comet crashed into it. I think that’s very clever.”

Bergman: “The Eagles mascot is my favorite because I graduated an Eagle and earned my first ever high school regional championship as an Eagle — AKE.”

Showers: “Hoopeston Area Cornjerkers. It’s unique but also has a great story behind it, which makes it even better. Agriculture is a major part of the economics of our area, and acknowledging that with a school mascot is super cool.”

Bleecher: “Olympia High School Spartans is the one I like the most. I feel like the appearance of their mascot is suggestive of strength and courage.”

Cook: “In volleyball, we really don’t really see mascots at matches. What I am impressed with is the attendance and student section at matches at Cissna Park, SJ-O, STM, Blue Ridge, Mahomet-Seymour and Heritage, to name a few. The fans and student sections offer as much to the match as the student-athletes.”

What was the most difficult part about the pause on IHSA activities this school year?

Chopra: “Not being able to compete. I like being in competitive atmospheres, and not being able to do that really made me appreciate any chance I get to compete on another level.”

Kerr: “Having the season moved from the fall to the spring changes a lot of people’s ‘normal’ schedules, and having to get used to playing in March/April instead (is difficult).”

McClure: “Definitely the thought of not having another season with our seniors. They are such amazing teammates and friends. I am so happy I get one more season with them.”

Burnett: “Not knowing when we would be able to step back on the court and be together, creating memorable bonds with the team. The pandemic has taught us to respect the process and value the things we love most. It’s go time from here on out, and we are all beyond grateful for what is ahead.”

Oyer: “Trying to stay active and in shape. It had become harder to get motivated and be productive since I was at home all day. My bed was a very tempting place to stay. Not being allowed to go to any sort of gym was rough.”

Bergman: “The hardest part has been the start and stopping of the contact days, and obviously not knowing what our season was going to look like for the longest time. Another would be losing touch with the players on the court.”

Buckler: “Not being able to have a normal season. As a program with three schools, I enjoy having the summertime to bring in the freshmen and introduce them to the high school program.”

Showers: “First, all of the unknowns that came with this season. As athletes and coaches, we didn’t have answers for a long time, and it was frustrating just not knowing. Second, it has been harder to create relationships outside of the gym and off the court. As a coach in general, but especially a new coach, for me, it is incredibly important to create a positive, personal relationship in all aspects of my players’ lives. Since we couldn’t spend time together and learn about each other during tournaments, camps, going to Illini games, team dinners, etc., it was much harder to form the natural relationships that come with being together so often.”

Bleecher: “Watching just how frustrated my children were getting with being sidelined. No practices, games, strength training or team activities off the field or court with their teammates was hard on them. They saw that kids in other states were practicing, competing and remaining healthy. How do you tell your children that it’s OK in Indiana, Iowa and other states, but it’s not OK in Illinois? Sports mean way more than just physical activity to these athletes. They have missed their friends, socializing and bonding with a group of like-minded teens, and they have missed out on developing leadership and mental and physical skills they will use as adults.”

Cook: “I was scared I would lose the level of officiating that I had worked so hard to achieve. Many fans and athletes do not realize that officials spend 20-30 hours a year minimum training to improve their skill set. As with the players, we had a long layoff and I was worried that I had lost this skill set. I can honestly say I am not at the same level I was a year ago, but it is coming back quickly.”

Why is being involved with high school volleyball important to you?

Chopra: “It gives me the chance to represent my school, and it gives me the opportunity to make really good friends and the best memories.”

Kerr: “There is always joy and pride to represent your school and to play in front of them, and our volleyball program is so tight. I’m friends with friends from all different grade levels because of high school volleyball.”

McClure: “I love my team, I love the sport, I love to compete and I love our program at STM.”

Burnett: “High school volleyball is something that I have always looked up to from a young age. It has led me to strong relationships and bonds, not only on the court but off as well. Volleyball has taught me to be a leader for others and has brought many valuable memories with coaches and teammates.”

Oyer: “I’ve learned lots of life lessons, and it also prepares me for playing at the next level. I learned how to adapt to a faster pace, be more outgoing and vocal and work with others. I can use what I learn in volleyball in my outside life. High school volleyball showed me how to put others before myself, be a good listener, take criticism and push through when things get hard. High school volleyball was one of the things that brought out my true love for the sport. I don’t think volleyball is just something I play — it’s what makes me who I am. I don’t know where or who I would be without volleyball.”

Bergman: “I love it. I like the training, the competition and the planning, but I love to see the team aspect of this sport.”

Buckler: “Volleyball is my passion. I love to coach because I love getting to know every player and watch them grow into their own unique self. I am compassionate and care about each of the players both on and off the court. I enjoy coaching and teaching the players on how to be successful no matter what the world brings them.”

Showers: “I have found two passions in my career: volleyball and my students/athletes. As a teacher and now a coach, I want to leave a positive impact on kids’ lives, just like the impact amazing teachers and coaches I had in the past did with me and so many others. I’ve found the best way to do that is to find a common bond (in this case volleyball) and use that to forge meaningful relationships with each and every kid.”

Bleecher: “I have always felt it is important to support, help and be actively involved at Unity. Volleyball has long been a part of my life. When my own daughter developed a love of volleyball, it was natural for me to want to help the volleyball program. I know how hard the coaches work and the time they commit away from their families. If what I can do helps them to find a balance in their life, then I am happy to do it.”

Cook: “I love the game. Being on the floor with the student-athletes is such an honor and a privilege. To be a part of this game year after year is a true blessing.”

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