OPRF girls volleyball is on the rise

Huskies have high hopes with mix of Coach Collins, veterans and newcomers

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By Marty Farmer

Sports Editor

In her second year as the girls volleyball head coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Kelly Collins has chosen the theme "Raise It Up!" for the 2017 season.

"The team is using the metaphor of a house being built," Collins said. "They understand that last year's team laid the foundation but now it's time to 'Raise It Up!,' to be better.

"Every day we walk into the gym with the mindset we have to be better than we were the day before. There is a sense of urgency for this group to be better than last year."

Considering the Huskies went 10-16 last year, an improved record seems very realistic. OPRF returns five seniors, two of whom have been on the varsity for three years. Most importantly, the players have shown an eagerness to develop as a team and follow Collins' coaching

"In terms of attitude and effort, I could not be more grateful and excited to be coaching this group of young women," Collins said. "I sent them a text before practice after our first game that had the thought 'excited to get better today.' I truly meant it.

"They want to be successful and understand the hard work that must go into doing that. As a coach, you can't ask for anything more; it's a privilege to work with them on a daily basis. 

Senior Mireya Garcia, a DePaul recruit, is the top returner. The accomplished outside hitter had 120 kills, 64 digs and 21 aces last season.

"Mireya evolved into one of our starting outside hitters and go-to players," Collins said. "Though she only stands at 5-foot-10, Mireya can reach 9 feet, 8 inches when jumping; that allows her to be a deadly factor against her opponents. She is equally aggressive in the back row with her speed and ability to ready hitters."

While her talent is apparent, Garcia is focusing on a critical intangible.

"As a senior, my goal is to be a leader on and off the court," she said. "I want to lead by example, but I'm also trying to become a more vocal leader."

Junior middle hitter Zora Barnett also returns for her second year on varsity. Regarded as the vocal leader of the team, she's quick with excellent lateral movement. She's also a dual-threat player as a blocker and attacker.

Outside/right side hitter Alessandra Sleuwen should have a major impact in the front row. The 6-2 senior is a key blocker and attacker.

Seniors Renae Tourtellote (middle hitter) and Sylvia Battersby (defensive specialist/libero) also have ample varsity experience.

"Sylvia will be making the transition from right-side hitter to our starting libero this year," Collins said. "She is the best passer on our team. We need to put her in a position where she will be the one handling a majority of the balls."

The Huskies welcome several new players to bolster the varsity rotation. Sophomore outside hitter Natalie Chizzo, junior setter Hayden Benson, sophomore setter Alex Weisman and sophomore middle hitter Zariah Woodward are players to watch.

Inserted in the lineup at outside hitter to replace three-year starter Abby Zarsol (graduated in 2017), the sky's the limit for Chizzo.

"Natalie is coming off a successful club season on her 15-1 Lions Jr. team which took 1st place at the Milwaukee Winter Classic, Presidents Day Tournament, and 8th Place at Junior Nationals," Collins said. "She is already being recruited by several Division 1 schools (University of Illinois, UIC, Marquette and Wake Forest). Natalie has the ability to both block and swing at either pin. We are excited to see her develop as both a front- and back-row player this year."

With Chizzo, Sleuwen and Woodard all standing 6-2, OPRF has formidable size along the net.

"Two of our biggest strengths this year will be our blocking and hitting," Collins said. "We are excited about the height of our front row and the versatility we have among all of our hitters. However, we must be able to have consistent first and second contacts in order to use our offense effectively. If we can get our serve-receive and setting on the same page we will be a tough team for our opponents."

As always, the West Suburban Conference Silver Division is loaded with quality teams. Defending conference champion Glenbard West, Downers Grove North, Hinsdale Central, Lyons Township and York are contenders.

"I think we are better prepared to face great teams in and out of conference," Garcia said. "Win or lose, it's a good experience for us to face tough competition. Coach Collins has really changed the feel of the program. She's helped us keep a competitive spirit alive in both practices and games. We want to improve, but we also want to up our record and win more matches this season."

The Huskies struggled in league play last season with a 1-5 record.

"We did not compete well in conference last year. Since this summer, we have made it a primary goal to fix that this year," Collins said. "We feel confident that we can match up much better with our conference rivals this year."

OPRF split a pair of matches at the New Trier Invite (Sept. 1-2) to finish in seventh place. The Huskies cruised to a 25-15, 25-11 win against Wheeling at the tournament. Chizzo (5 kills, 4 blocks, 2 digs), Barnett (4 kills, 5 blocks) and Hayden Benson (16 assists, 4 digs) led the Husksies to victory.


Email: marty@oakpark.com Twitter: @OakParkSports

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