It takes time to build a winning culture for any struggling team. Since Kelly Collins took over for Don August as the OPRF High School girls volleyball coach a few years ago, that’s been her top priority.
“Our theme this year is ‘Own It,'” Collins said. “We have eight returning players, a majority of them who have been playing for us the past 2-3 years. They have taken full ownership of being part of this culture change we have created within our program. Now it’s time to give them keys and let them run with it.
“At the beginning of the season in our meeting, each player was literally given a key to this team along with a keychain where they had to write something that was going to be a daily reminder to them of their full ownership of this team. If all 13 of them bring that ownership, competitive edge, and hunger for success every day as a team, that’s when we will start seeing a lot of success. It will be fun.”
Coming off a 12-24 campaign in 2017, with the requisite growing pains along the way, Collins believes the Huskies are ready to finally make good on some of their considerable promise.
“After spending the past two years creating and building a competitive culture of OPRF volleyball, the Huskies are primed for success in 2018,” Collins said. “Having two seasons of falling short of goals and experiencing a lot of defeat, you can sense the eagerness for success from this group. When we met as a team in the beginning of the season, the kids agreed that they wanted to win more.”
Winning more, specifically, means a higher finish in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division, top-5 finishes in tournaments, a regional championship, and hopefully, a deep run in the state playoffs.
These are attainable but challenging goals considering the Huskies went 1-5 in conference play, finished no higher than 7th in tournaments and lost to Jones College Prep in a regional final last season.
The Huskies are off to a 3-5 start this season with wins over St. Ignatius, Lemont and Morton. OPRF placed 12th at the Metea Valley tourney. In a 25-11, 25-14 home win against Morton last week, Chizzo (4 aces, 5 kills, 6 digs), Woodard (5 kills, 3 blocks) and Barnett (4 kills, 2 blocks) led OPRF.
The approach to surpassing last year’s results seems reasonable.
“We focus a lot on what we can control,” Collins said. “The two very specific things are how we prepare ourselves and how we go out and execute on game day. Therefore, our main goal [is] to be competitive as possible in everything we do every day so that we’re ready come late October and November.”
Much of the Huskies’ positive outlook is directly correlated with their talent level. Although the team lost outside hitters Mireya Garcia (now playing volleyball at DePaul) and Ale Sleuwen to graduation, most of the team’s nucleus remains intact.
OPRF is led by a pair of Division I recruits in 6-foot-2 outside hitter Natalie Chizzo and 6-2 middle hitter Zahria Woodard. Both juniors, Chizzo is being recruited by Clemson, DePaul, Loyola Chicago, and Cal Poly, and Woodard has drawn interest from South Carolina and Coastal Carolina.
“Natalie has developed into reliable 6 rotation player,” Collins said. “She has the skill to hit a variety of shots on the court and gives us a big block on the outside. When we need to put a ball away its going to her.
“Zahria has shown tremendous growth from last season to the current one. She is a fierce competitor. Her height and speed give us the opportunity to run several different options out of the middle.”
Senior middle hitter Zora Barnett and junior libero Ella Dunavan are other top players for OPRF.
“Zora is a senior leader on the court,” Colllins said. “Her quickness both laterally and vertically makes her a double threat both offensively as a hitter and defensively as a blocker.”
Sophomore Chloe Gill, a 6-2 outside hitter, should make an immediate impact at the varsity level.
“Chloe will be a key blocker and attacker for us this year,” Collins said. “She is versatile enough to swing and block on either side of the pin.”
Freshman libero Ella Olson, senior setter Hayden Benson, senior libero Megan Sullivan, junior middle hitter Zahria Woodard, junior setter Alex Weisman, junior right side/middle hitter Athena Shelley-Diggs, senior libero Julia Sullivan, senior outside hitter Chloe Cantu and sophomore outside hitter Maddie Macek round out the roster. Charles Simatic is an assistant coach for Collins.
Eight returning players gained valuable experience last season.
“We are looking to continue to grow on our fast-paced offense that we implemented at the end of last year,” Collins said. “We will have a very strong and fast offense dominated by the ‘big three’ of Nat, Zora, and Zahria. If our ball control and setting can stay consistent and we minimize unforced errors, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be competitive with every team we face.”
The Huskies won’t need to look any further than their own conference for stiff competition.
“It’s no secret that we are in one of the toughest conferences and have one of the hardest tournament schedules, but that’s how we want it,” Collins said. “There are no ‘easy games’ when you’re playing in the West Suburban Silver. Glenbard West and Downers Grove North are top 20 teams in the state, and York and Hinsdale Central will also be very solid this year.
“Compete, compete, compete is what we preach to our kids. We want to play against the best to see how we match up.”
OPRF visits Hinsdale Central in a conference match on Tuesday, Sept. 11. The Huskies return home to take on Fenwick on Thursday, Sept. 13 in nonconference action. Both matches start at 5:30 p.m.