"The best player in the country," OPRF head volleyball coach John Kasik declared sternly when asked who was returning to help lead his team back to the IHSA State finals this season for the third consecutive year. Kasik followed the statement up with "as far as I'm concerned."
But Kasik's statement may be factual, stated either now or at the end of the season. Sean O'Malley, a 6-foot-8-inch senior who is expected to sign with UCLA in April, returns to the lineup this season to help the Huskies improve on last year's stellar 35-5 overall record and a perfect 5-0 West Suburban (Silver) Conference mark. As a weakside hitter last season, O'Malley led the team in kills with a whopping 333â€"he had 18 in one game.
In order to get the most out of his star player, Kasik has moved O'Malley to the strongside this season.
"We feel he'll get more sets this way," said Kasik of the switch. "Sean is such an all-around skillful player we need him where he'll dominate the most."
O'Malley, who boasts a 30-inch vertical leap and is a definite candidate for Player of the Year this season, garnered 40 blocks and 43 aces last year. He led the team with 10 kills in a 25-22, 25-19 loss to Brother Rice in the IHSA State quarterfinals.
Alongside O'Malley the Huskies will be stocked once again with Chris Ernest, Graham Squires, and Chris Lewis. Ernest, a 6-3 middle blocker with a 36-inch vertical leap, was second on the team last year in blocks with 49. Squires will resume his role as passing specialist. The senior led the team in assists last year with 37. Lewis played varsity as a sophomore last year.
"We've got a very well-rounded group of talented players this time around," said Kasik, who began the volleyball program at OPRF 14 years ago. "It should make for an interesting season."
Newcomers expected to make a significant impact include Ben Plourde, a 6-5 middle blocker, and 6-3 junior Steven Gee. Plourde is expected to anchor the defense, along with Anthony LeFlore, a returning defensive specialist from last season.
Junior Lawrence Collerd steps in to fill the shoes of the departed Chris Walstra, who tallied a mind-boggling 882 assists last season.
It's the usual suspects who look to give OPRF trouble this season. Brother Rice, Glenbrook North and Wheaton-Warrenville South, who won the State title last year, are all expected to make another run at State.
"I think our team is better than last year's team, but so is everyone else," said Kasik. "We won't really know where we stand for another month or so."
The Huskies, who have been to the state tourney eight times since 1992â€"finishing runner-up three times in that spanâ€"were awarded a sixth seed at the prestigious and competitive Best of Illinois tournament, which begins this week. Joining the already highly ranked teams on the slate are the State champs from Missouri and Indiana.
"We're looking forward to that particular tournament more than ever," said Kasik. "We should be able to gauge how well we standup to some quality volleyball teams."
The Huskies came from behind to in two matches to take the title at the Hoffman Estate tournament over the weekend. OPRF defeated Mundelein 22-25, 25-23, 15-13 in the opener and edged Naperville Central 20-25, 27-26, 15-11 in the title match.
The Hustkies will take on St. Laurence in their home-opener on April 13 (6 p.m.).