After one tournament in August, Harper College’s women’s volleyball team owned a 2-2 record.
The losses were a shock to the system for the Hawks, who won the 2016 NJCAA Division III championship while losing only once in 44 matches.
“I never thought we’d go to nationals again,” said sophomore libero Ariana Chelini, a Crystal Lake South graduate. “We had a rough start at the Wisconsin Dells tournament. I thought, ‘Oh no, we already lost two [matches].’ I started panicking.”
But Chelini and her teammates got to work, embracing practices that brought quick improvement, Harper coach Bob Vilsoet said.
The team went on a 17-1 run and regained its confidence. That led the Hawks (37-5) to get back to the nationals last month, where they advanced to the title match again. This time, they suffered a 3-1 loss to Eastfield College of Texas and finished second.
“It was not an easy path to get there,” Vilsoet said. “The competition we played this year was much tougher.”
The team was aided by Chelini, who played outside hitter last season, being back in her natural position at libero. Her skills helped Harper go 12-0 in Illinois N4C Conference play.
“We had two really good liberos on last year’s team, so I had to make a decision,” Vilsoet said. “This year, Ariana got the awards she deserved at her natural spot. She was all-conference, all-region and she is nominated for all-American.”
Chelini, who was all-tournament at nationals, led NJCAA D-III with 745 digs and helped the team lead the nation in that category. She also showed her skills in other areas.
“She’s so versatile,” Vilsoet said. “She’s a fantastic server. She’s a fantastic serve receiver. She’s fantastic on defense. And last year, she had a lot of kills.”
For Chelini, the benefit of playing libero is simple.
“I feel like I shine more there,” she said. “I just love passing. It’s my favorite thing to do. Hitting is fun, but being able to dig up a ball is a lot more rewarding … especially if it’s coming at you really fast.”
Wagner, Badgers shine: Wisconsin junior cross country athlete Erin Wagner was part of a team that finished 10th last month at the NCAA championships in Louisville, Kentucky. The Badgers entered the meet ranked 17th in the nation.
Wagner, a Prairie Ridge grad, was the Badgers’ No. 6 finisher in the 6-kilometer race in 21 minutes, 19.6 seconds. Overall, she placed 178th in the field of 255 runners at nationals.
Wagner’s top finish of the season came Sept. 16 at the Badgers’ Mayflower Day Open. She placed fifth overall in 22:12.2.
Gardeck up for top award: Dennis Gardeck (Crystal Lake South) is one of 34 nominees for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the award presented annually to the nation’s top NCAA Division II football player.
A linebacker at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, Gardeck made a big impact as a graduate transfer this season from West Virginia State. He ranked second nationally with 14 sacks while leading the team with 75 tackles. He finished fifth in the nation with 21 tackles for loss and earned first-team All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference honors and the league’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year Award.
Led by defensive coordinator and fellow South grad Nick Benedetto, the Cougars finished 9-3 and ranked second nationally in total defense (244.3 yards a game) and scoring defense (12.3 points a game).
Andrews enjoys career night: University of Illinois sophomore women’s basketball forward Ali Andrews (Huntley) scored a career-high 26 points Nov. 25 against Wichita State.
Andrews hit six of her eight 3-point attempts, then knocked down two key free throws in the final minute to lock up the 68-67 win. Her nine total field goals and six 3s both were career bests.
For the season, Andrews is averaging 9.9 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Illini (5-3). Her 13 3-pointers are tops on the Illini, and her .481 shooting percentage from long range ranks fourth in the Big Ten Conference.
Bradley recognition: Prairie Ridge grad Brandon Barnes, a senior goalkeeper at Bradley University, was named second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference this fall in men’s soccer.
Barnes, a graduate transfer from Seton Hall, led the conference in saves a game (4.9) and was second with nine shutouts. He also ranked third in goals-against average (.821) and save percentage (.851).
Bradley (11-7-3) advanced to the MVC tournament semifinals, where the Braves lost in penalty kicks to league champ Central Arkansas.
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at BarryOnCampus@hotmail.com and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.