The Illinois High School Association held its first state boys volleyball tournament in 1992. That year, coach John Kasik led Oak Park and River Forest to a runner-up finish. Under his guidance, the Huskies proved to be a perennial power for the rest of the decade, adding another runner-up finishes in 1993, and third-place results in 1994 and 2005.

After Kasik’s departure following the 2005 season, there was a gradual yet noticeable decline in OPRF’s success. However, last season brought a reversal of fortune as a Huskie team that was unheralded at the start made it back to the state quarterfinals. The team finished with a 25-9 record and fell to Lake Park in a highly competitive quarterfinal. Still, OPRF was able to reestablish itself as a team to be reckoned with, and that was largely due to a team-oriented approach stressed by senior leaders Ben Hancock, Mike Saleh, Evan Beebe, and Elijah Peppers.

Junior setter Sean Califf was impressed with the rapid transformation of OPRF from a mediocre squad to a state contender. 

“My freshman year was hard to watch; unnecessary errors and lack of will to play riddled the team,” he said. “I had very little hope in a team I would be taking on some day, but to see the teams confidence and ability to play the game last year gave me so much excitement for this season.”

Although Hancock and the other 2017 seniors will be missed, Califf said that they set a good standard for the returning players to follow. He’s confident that the Huskies can have another successful season if they continue to play as a team.

“The confidence will definitely carry over,” he said. “Ben Hancock laid out great groundwork because of his work ethic and leadership, all I have to do is keep on the same morals and same drive as he instilled into the team.”

Moreover, while there’s nothing wrong with having confidence and belief, in order to be a state contender in any sport, a team needs good talent. And though there is indeed a batch of newcomers on the varsity, there’s also plenty of promising athleticism among them.

“This is perhaps the most athletic team ever at OPRF,” said head coach Don August, entering his 13th season leading the Huskies. “We have nine players touching over 10’6″, with four being in the 10’10” range. All of our primary players have significant club experience, which should help our season get off to a strong start. However, we are young and expecting strong contributions from a number of juniors in their first varsity season.”

“Physical ability is definitely a trait we all hold true to but the thing that sets us apart from other teams is our competitive nature,” Califf added. “We push each other to play better and harder than we did last time.”

Senior middle blocker and captain Jack Valenti is OPRF’s top returnee. In 2017, Valenti recorded 163 kills, 65 blocks, and 26 aces and will take on an increased leadership role, along with fellow seniors Mike Milad and Ben Taubman. Milad, a defensive specialist, had 101 digs, 22 assists, and four aces last season, and Taubman, a middle blocker, had 12 kills and four assists. 

Other top returnees are juniors Mike Perla and Kyle Rasmussen. As a libero, Perla registered 68 digs, 18 assists, and five aces. Outside hitter Rasmussen added 90 kills, seven blocks, and 15 assists. 

Besides Califf taking over Hancock’s setter position, there are new players that could ensure another successful season. Junior Quinton Kitzman will see time at the right side position, while classmate Jared Shainis backs up Valenti at middle blocker. Sophomore Nick Altier and junior Lucas Schattauer provide depth at the outside hitter position. 

OPRF is off to a 2-0 start this season, having defeated both Morton and Whitney Young in straight sets. Getting early success should provide the Huskies with the confidence they’ll need to navigate a challenging schedule, particularly when West Suburban Conference Silver Division play starts. Glenbard West is the defending state champion and is expected to be strong again, as are Downers Grove North, Hinsdale Central, and Lyons Township. How quickly the newcomers are able to blend in with the returning players will determine OPRF’s fortunes. 

Yet, despite the youth, both August and Califf are optimistic about the Huskies.

“I expect to build off last season’s success,” August said. “If we stay healthy and can play with some degree of consistency we have the potential for a very successful season.”

“My goal for our team is to mature as a team,” Califf said. “We need to make sure as a young team to grow as players and individuals. It would only be fair to Jack Valenti – he deserves a good last season.”

OPRF at a glance

Head Coach: Don August (13th season, 243-207 career record)

Last Year: 25-9 overall record (3-3 in West Suburban Conference Silver Division). Lost in IHSA quarterfinals to Lake Park 25-27, 17-25.

Top Returning Players: Jack Valenti, senior, middle blocker; Mike Perla, junior, libero; Mike Milad, junior, defensive specialist; Ben Taubman, senior, middle blocker; Kyle Rasmussen, junior, outside hitter.

Top Newcomers: Nick Altier, sophomore, outside hitter; Sean Califf, junior, setter; Quinton Kitzman, junior, right side; Lucas Schattauer, junior, outside hitter; Jared Shainis, junior, middle blocker.

Outlook: Led by Ben Hancock, OPRF got back to the state quarterfinals in 2017. The Huskies were once frequent visitors to that stage, and with the promising young talent in place don’t be surprised if the season once again ends in another trip to Hoffman Estates.

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