Huntley’s Taylor Jakubowski was caught by surprise last year when teammates paid the incoming freshman the ultimate respect and named the setter one of two team captains.
“It was crazy,” Jakubowski said, “and I still think it’s crazy.”
Along with senior captain Ally Dion, the 2016 Northwest Herald Volleyball Player of the Year, Jakubowski led the Red Raiders to their first Fox Valley Conference championship in school history.
And she did it at arguably the sport’s most important position.
“We’ve had freshmen come in and start for us, but not at such a crucial role,” sixth-year coach Karen Naymola said. “Your setter is your quarterback. Last year, it was a lot to ask of a freshman, expected to run the whole offense, but she’s the type of kid who can do that.
“She’s extremely talented. She knows the game better than any player I’ve seen. She connects so well with our hitters and can run that fast offense that we’re going to need to beat the teams in our conference.”
The 5-foot-7 setter earned Northwest Herald All-Area first team honors as a freshman, leading the area with 989 assists and adding more than 300 digs. Huntley collected its second straight regional title – with Jakubowski dishing out 45 assists in a thrilling 25-21, 25-27, 27-25 victory against McHenry in a Class 4A Harlem Regional final.
Dion (NCAA Division-I Southeast Missouri State), along with Caitlin Thorelius (McHenry County College), are no longer on the team, but the Raiders again figure to be among the top teams in the stacked, nine-team FVC.
“We just want to keep playing as a team and keep improving with every single point,” said Jakubowski, who was named one of the top 50 freshmen by PrepVolleyball.com. “We lost some key players, but I still think people are still looking at us as a threat, which is good, but we know that [Crystal Lake] Central is going to be big, and Prairie Ridge is still big and so is Cary-Grove.”
Huntley has a talented group of five defensive specialists, which should be one of the team’s strengths this year in the absence of height, Naymola said. The tallest player on the Raiders’ roster is junior middle blocker Marissa Deem at 6 feet.
Aleah Amelio, named a co-captain with Jakubowski, is the only senior on Huntley. She had 283 kills last season and will be joined on the outside by junior Julia Johnson and freshman Emma Konie.
Also returning is defensive specialist and libero Sarah Zayas, who led the team with 398 digs.
“I still think we have a really good chance of coming out on top,” Zayas said of the FVC. “Last year, we learned that every single point matters and to work harder every single day to be the best we can. There are no easy games [in the conference].”
Huntley is the defending FVC champion, but Crystal Lake Central might be the favorite. The Tigers return their entire starting lineup, including seniors Kendall Lownds, Megan Kelly, Emily Kelly and Olivia Doak. On the outside, they return two big hitters in Madde Blake and Camryn Hausler, both sophomores.
The Tigers lost both matches to Huntley last year, finishing a game behind the Raiders in the conference standings. Central, however, won back-to-back regional titles and made it farther than any local Class 4A team – losing to DeKalb, 25-23, 25-20, in a Huntley sectional final.
Prairie Ridge also is coming off its second straight regional title and its roster is one of the area’s most experienced. Jayden Otto, Emily Baudin and Erin McNeil earned all-area honors last year.
Crystal Lake South’s Kleja Cerniauskaite and Yianna Kirimis, both 6-foot-2, will provide a challenge for opposing FVC teams in the middle, while McHenry will look to build on last season’s strong finish after coming within a point of beating Huntley for the regional title.
And Cary-Grove, a four-time state qualifier in the past eight seasons, is always a threat.
The Raiders are up for the challenge as the defending FVC champions for the first time.
“There isn’t a player on this team that hasn’t improved over club season,” Amelio said. “We lost some key players, but we’re all coming back stronger and better than ever. We all really want it.”
First on the conference schedule for Huntley? A home match against Crystal Lake Central on Tuesday.
“It’s going to be a great way to measure the beginning of the season, just to see where we’re at,” Naymola said. “To beat Central would be a big, big start to conference.”