Madisen Babich knows what it takes to win because she’s done it before.
That’s a good thing because Babich is the only player on the Lyons Township High School girls volleyball team with any significant varsity experience.
Babich, a 5-5 senior libero who is committed to Cal State-Fullerton, is a four-year varsity veteran and one of the few remaining links to last year’s team, which went 34-5 and won conference and regional titles before falling to Mother McAuley in a Class 4A sectional final.
The Lions graduated every other starter from that team, including All-American setter Hannah Juley and two school-record holders in middle blocker Cori Hansen, the career blocks leader, and libero Toni Saracco, the career and single-season digs leader.
“They were definitely key parts to our team and I think this year we’re kind of going in with an open mind and not expecting as much as we did last year,” Babich said. “We’re kind of going in of a mind of just having fun and getting the job done as best as possible.
“We know we’re not stacked as last year’s team so we’re going to do what we can with what we have. By the end of the year we should be where we want, but right now is getting there step-by-step and not really worrying about that pressure of ‘Oh, my gosh, we need to make it to state,’ because that was our mindset last year.”
The roster turnover has forced veteran LTHS coach Joann Pyritz to shake up her system and become more defensive-oriented. The Lions will switch to a 6-2 offense with seniors Marina Gonzalez and Meg Kern doing the setting.
With Babich, whose sister Kaley played on Lions’ 2010 state championship team, and one of the setters in the back row at all times, LTHS should be solid defensively. Every player will focus on defense.
“We train at every position,” said junior Kenna Hansen, Cori’s sister. “Even though I’m a right side, I train everywhere.
“We do have a little bit of a target on our back, I guess, but I think we’ll be able to follow in (the 2014 team’s) footsteps. We’re really bonding as a team.”
Pyritz said Babich is playing a big role in uniting the team.
“The fact that you have somebody on your team that knows what the system has been, it helps other people manage,” Pyritz said. “She’s been the one who says, ‘C’mon, if we’ve done this in the past, we can do this, we have to do this.’ It helps her be a leader which is what we’re hoping for her.”
It is rare for a libero to be a team leader, but with two new setters and relatively small hitters, it is a necessity for the Lions. Middle hitter Nicollete Jones, a 6-1 sophomore, is the only player taller than 6-0.
Jones will likely start in the middle, while the 5-10 Hansen will back up 6-0 senior Shalyn Brady on the right side. Hannah Hornacek, a 5-11 senior, and 5-7 junior Rhiannon Schuenemann will start at outside hitter.
“Brady is a big hitter,” Pyritz said. “She will score a lot of points but we like to have balanced attack.
“Schuenemann I find to be a very consistent all-around player. I’m sure she’ll make some nice contributions this year.”
But getting the newcomers integrated will take time, so another 30-win season is probably unrealistic.
“Our main focus at practice right now is just connecting our hitters and setters together, getting them as much reps as possible,” Babich said. “We have the mentality of being a defensive team this year because we don’t really have the height as much, but we’re all really good defensive players and we just want to come together as a team at the end of the day and play for each other.”
Therefore, the Lions aren’t too worried about living up to the program’s lofty reputation.
“It’s a little scary since they were so good last year,” sophomore outside hitter Emma Fink said. “But I think we’ll do well. I think we all want to work together as a team and make sure we get better overall.”
That is Pyritz’s goal every year, regardless of the team’s ceiling.
“We want to achieve as high as we can and that’s not to take anything away from this group compared to last,” Pyritz said. “It’s just we graduated a lot of seniors, many of whom played for four years and we had some Division I athletes in that group.
“This will be a learning experience to figure out what lineup works the best and we’ve got some growing to do as players in terms of skill. If we’re able to manage that, we’ll be able to achieve.”