As the only freshman starter on the varsity volleyball team three years ago, Crystal Lake Central’s Megan Kelly remembers exactly how intimidating it was to join a program with high expectations.
“When I came in, I was terrified of all the seniors.” Kelly said. “I was really scared of messing up, just because they really wanted to win so bad.”
That year’s team started off with 33 consecutive wins before finishing 3-4 and ending the season without any postseason hardware. Since then, Kelly has been a big part of back-to-back-to-back Class 4A regional championships.
This year’s team became the first in program history to win a 4A sectional and supersectional title. At approximately 8:30 p.m. Friday, the Tigers (33-3) will play Marist (39-1) in a Class 4A state semifinal.
Central won the Class 3A state title in 2007 and placed fourth in 2009, also advancing to state in 1989 (AA).
Kelly – along with seniors Olivia Doak, Emily Kelly, Kendall Lownds and Emma Gruper – said this season of firsts could not have been possible without the previous three, which included highs and lows. Doak and Emily Kelly played on varsity as freshmen but didn’t start, and Lownds and Gruper joined as sophomores. Junior Paige Hulata has been on varsity all three seasons.
Last year’s team became the first in program history to win a 4A sectional semifinal, but the season ended with a two-set loss to DeKalb in the championship.
“I was the only underclassman [starting] on that  team, so that was really nerve-wracking,” Megan Kelly said. “Last year, we didn’t have that many seniors. Nobody was forced to step into that role. The junior class was kind of thrown into that role ... and we weren’t really ready for it.”
Madde Blake, who started as a freshman last year and leads the team with 220 kills, recognized a difference in leadership and team unity this year – despite the Tigers bringing back their entire starting roster.
“We’re a totally different team than we were last year,” Blake said. “We understand that there’s no turning back and we don’t get a second chance. Our mentality is a lot stronger because our senior leaders have guided us so much more this year.”
“Last year, I thought we were close, but this year we’re a lot closer,” sophomore outside hitter Camryn Hausler said. “There’s more mutual respect now.”
Crystal Lake Central coach Lisa Brunstrum, too, has seen the team come together in ways it did not last year.
“Last year, we started three juniors and three freshmen,” Brunstrum said. “I had no idea what we were going to do because I didn’t know how we would mesh on the court. The biggest key was ‘How hard are they going to work in practice?’ That’s going to determine how far we actually go.
“The biggest improvement I see is the way they act towards each other on the court. We really looked to the juniors to step up last year ... and they weren’t quite ready. This year, they knew, ‘This is what we want to push for, and this is the legacy we want to leave.’ ”
Brunstrum remembers longtime coach Doug Blundy always stressed the importance of being a family first. It’s something that has really stood out in this year’s group, she said.
“We spend so much time together that we really are a family,” Brunstrum said. “We fight, we bicker, we get along, we hug, we cry, we laugh.”
The Tigers are a family in more ways than one. Megan and Emily Kelly’s older sister, Sarah, played for Central from 2012 to 2015. Hausler’s sister, Cayla, was a 2015 grad and Lownds’ sister, Brittany, was on the 2015 team that won the program’s first 4A regional title.
The family ties don’t end there.
Freshman Madeline Timmerman’s mother played on the first Tigers team to reach state in 1989, sophomore Grace Levin’s mother played for Blundy, and freshman Madeline McCormick’s mother played against Brunstrum and assistant coach Jill Pearce when they went to state as players on the Crystal Lake South team.
Brunstrum said those family ties have absolutely fueled the Tigers program in recent years.
“I think the legacies that their sisters have, they kind of want to outplay them and set higher goals,” Brunstrum said. “We talked years ago when we moved to Class 4A [in 2012], it’s kind of a new ballgame. We just have to keep pushing, and we’ve been able to go one match further every season. It’s been a wild ride this week, but we’re just kind of soaking up every minute of it.”