Created:Friday, August 23, 2013 9:12 p.m.CDT
Updated:Saturday, August 24, 2013 11:41 a.m.CDT

Breaking down the prep volleyball favorites

Kyle Grillot - Crystal Lake South Junior Carly Nolan celebrates with senior Sara Mickow during volleyball practice at Crystal Lake South High School Tuesday, August 20, 2013. (Kyle Grillot)

For the past two decades, volleyball in McHenry County has emerged as the top girls sport, routinely breeding some of the best teams in the state led by some of the nation’s top players.

This year, it appears the trend will continue. Never lacking storylines, here are a few things to watch and consider as the season unfolds and teams again make a case for an appearance in the state semifinals.

In the FVC Fox

Crystal Lake Central, Fox Valley Conference Fox Division winners or co-champions for six of the past seven seasons, should again be difficult to stop. The Tigers lost just one senior from their 2012 campaign when they finished 26-9 overall. Lauren Leverenz, a senior middle hitter committed to St. Louis University, feeds off of opponents’ energy. Senior middle Rachael Schoepke completes what could be the division’s strongest middle combo. Veteran setter Natalie Ricca masters her way around the court. Kassi Dvoracek moves from libero to the outside alongside Krissy Pratt - additional pieces in a strong offense that now knows what to expect in Class 4A.

“This year's team is more experienced and has played together for the last few seasons,” Central coach Lisa Reddish said. “Our team … has some great leadership from our senior class.”

Johnsburg’s Ashly Schmitt ensures the Skyhawks will not be overlooked. Johnsburg may only have nine players, but Schmitt plays for at least two. What Woodstock North lacks in offseason club experience, the Thunder compensates for with overall athleticism and senior leadership. Woodstock should improve on last year’s seven-win season behind seniors Megan Pautrat and Rachel Lohmeyer. Hampshire will rely on a young cast to handle passes from setter Brittany Laffin.

In the FVC Valley

Carly Nolan, Crystal Lake South’s junior outside, is one of the best players in the area who remains uncommitted. Nolan, also a strong student, has talked to coaches from Northwestern and Notre Dame, among others. Avalon Nero, South’s other outside committed to Troy University, is equally dangerous. The Gators setter, Cassie Sivesind, received a few solid reps during important matches last season and shouldn’t have much trouble distributing to an attack that includes middle hitter Nicole Slimko.

“(The Gators) know their success will be directly related to their hard work and teamwork,” South coach Jorie Fontana said.

Prairie Ridge remains a significant threat, especially if setter Taylor Otto can remain healthy. Otto has battled an ankle injury since last fall. Outside, Kennedy McNeil was dangerous during the Wolves’ run to the Class 4A supersectional and a quiet leader. Expect McNeil to be more demonstrative this season, if not vocally then certainly at the pins.

Huntley returns seven players, including Emily Westermeyer, a junior outside who commanded attention. Jacobs, traditionally good defensively, has one of the area’s best liberos in junior Kassie Kasper. Cary-Grove setter Meghan Seymour has worked tirelessly to improve and should be a strong pilot for a young but hungry Trojans team.

McHenry, also young, brings back four juniors including setters Zoe Lindsey and Megan Rouse. Dundee-Crown is laying the foundation for a strong next few seasons, but could surprise this year.

In the Big Northern Conference East Division

Senior outside Ali Frantti, ranked among the top in the nation and committed to Penn State, gives opponents fits. Should teams figure out how to stop Frantti, fellow outside Kelsey Burlini or middle blocker Libby Anderson will hurt them. On paper, the Rockets look like they are rebuilding. Coach Kaycee Kaywood is confident R-B can shed that tag quickly. “They have bonded very well,” Kaywood said.

Marengo welcomes back veteran coach Meg Dobbertin, who took three years off, and Harvard will embrace first-year coach Nicole Holmes, who is working on the Hornets’ mental game, she said.

In the Suburban Christian Conference

Marian Central coach Laura Watling’s team will look different this year. While it’s senior outside hitter Frankie Taylor’s turn to shine, and senior middle hitter Hannah Davis’ turn to dominate, the Hurricanes are young in many other areas. But they are not short on talent or skill, Watling said. “If we can develop a chemistry and rhythm, look for us to have a successful season,” she said.