MACHESNEY PARK — The Hononegah and Belvidere North girls volleyball programs have a stranglehold on the NIC-10, with Belvidere North winning six league titles in a row and Hononegah winning 21 conference titles since 1985.
This year is no different. Hononegah (18-2, 9-0) has won 24 sets in a row heading into Thursday night’s match against Belvidere North (13-3, 8-1), which has won its last 20 sets in a row. North has won 87 of its last 88 conference matches. The lone exception is a loss to Hononegah in this year’s season opener.
“For people to beat those teams, they have to play smart and pick on their weakest players and pick on their weak spots,” said Harlem junior middle hitter Brooke Boettcher.
Easier said than done. North last year had an NCAA Division I Recruit at virtually every position, but graduated five of six starters after taking second in the Class 3A state tournament.
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North and Hononegah, while still the best, no longer appear out of reach. And the team first in line to close the gap is Harlem. The Huskies were a NIC-10 power a generation ago, winning four NIC-10 titles and six regional championships between 1979-99. They haven’t been higher than fourth in more than a decade, but look like they are headed towards third place this year, with a 7-2 league record, losing only to Hononegah and North. One of those wins was a 26-24, 25-22 win over Guilford on Sept. 13, Harlem’s first win over Guilford in seven years.
“It’s good that we’re third in the conference,” Boettcher said. “We’re finally showing that we deserve to be higher up in the conference.”
“This year we made it a goal not to be middle of the pack and it’s really showing,” said senior outside hitter Patty Vyborny, who often goes by her middle name Grace.
Even being third “means a lot,” Harlem Coach Gretchen Kuchinski said.
“That was huge,” Kuchinski said of the win over Guilford. “I am really proud the girls came together and played for each other, worked through some of the tough points and tough calls. They came together on every point. They wanted that win.”
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That win, the Huskies hope, is just the beginning.
“We have changed things around,” said Kuchinski, who is in her third season as coach. “One of my priorities was to get into middle school. We are building a community program here. My concern is five years from now, not just this year. I am excited to see what these girls can do and then for the Younger ones to see what they do to see what they can be a part of.”
“We are definitely turning the program around this year,” Vyborny said. “Being fifth, sixth the last four or five years, now being top three, trying to be top two, maybe even top one, is really big for us. All these Younger kids who come out to our games can definitely look up to us and hopefully they put in the work to be here, too.”
Harlem is led by its front line of Boettcher, Vyborny and Bria Johnston, a four-year starter who plays much bigger than her 5-foot-7 height.
“Her drive is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” Kuchinski said of Johnston.
“Brooke bounces the ball every time she gets a set,” Vyborny said. “Every time we feed it to her she racks up points. And Bria, man, when she gets the ball, dude, she’s putting it down, every single time.
“They play it smart. They know when to tip. They know when to hit. They know when it’s a good ball. They know where to push the ball to. They know how to get the setter out. It really helps to get the other team out of system.”
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Johnston said spreading the load among all three players on the front line makes it easier for Harlem.
“Having three good hitters in the front row helps with blockers and mixing up the offense in general,” Johnston said. “Brooke is really dialed in. She knows what’s best for the team. Even if she gets a good ball and knows she can pound it, she is smart with her shots. Grace really brings the energy and picks us up when we are down. She is there for us when we need it.”
Together, they have Harlem on the rise.
“It’s our time to shine,” Johnston said.