Chicago’s Mother McAuley Lucky Dog/VBM national team of the year

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If you had to make a list of most storied girls’ high school volleyball programs in the country, Chicago-based Mother McAuley most certainly would be near the top of the list.

Entering 2016, the Mighty Macs, based on the city’s south side, had won 14 state titles and earned a state trophy seven other times.

That state title count now sits at 15 after McAuley team fought through a tremendously challenging schedule that ended with a three-set win over Minooka in the Class 4A state finals on the campus of Illinois State University.

For its accomplishments, Mother McAuley is the 2016 Lucky Dog Volleyball/VolleyballMag.com national girls high school team of the year.

The tough schedule weighed on the mind of 12th-year head coach Jen DeJarld, who played at McAuley, was an assistant under legendary Mighty Macs coach Nancy Pedersen and also had two daughters (Jane, now at Boston College, and Ryann, now at Notre Dame) go through the program.

“The big question was playing the tough schedule we do every year,” said DeJarld, who played collegiately at Iowa. “We play a pretty grueling schedule for a reason and to come away with one loss is pretty impressive. To go pretty much unscathed is not a goal, but it made the season special.”

McAuley went 4-1 at the Louisville Invitational, where its only loss of the season was to St. Joseph’s Academy of St. Louis. The Mighty Macs won a local tournament at Rich East High School, where they beat perennial power Wheaton St. Francis and then beat perennial national power Louisville Assumption twice within three days, the second of which occurred in the Mother McAuley ASICS Challenge tournament. The Mighty Macs won that prestigious tournament with victories over out-of-state foes Wahlert (Dubuque, Iowa), Assumption, Berkeley Prep (Tampa, Fla.) and Henry Clay (Lexington, Ken.). 

Two days later, McAuley (40-1) beat St. Francis again and then won the west-suburban Autumnfest tournament in mid-October.

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The Mighty Macs’ path to Redbird Arena and the state finals was no cakewalk, either. McAuley had to beat nationally ranked Geneva in three sets in a Class 4A supersectional in order to punch its state semifinals ticket.

“Our girls were relentless and competitive,” said DeJarld, who has a 420-67 career mark in 12 seasons at the helm (all 12 seasons of 30 or more wins and three of 40 or more). “I may have underestimated their competitiveness and drive this season.”

McAuley was powered offensively by Lucky Dog Volleyball/VolleyballMag.com All-American first-team selection Charley Niego (498 kills, 473 digs) and senior outside-right side Katie O’Connell, who had 334 kills and 434 digs. Senior libero Emma Reilly had 537 digs and DeJarld hit paydirt with sophomore setter Nancy Kane (985 assists, 270 digs, 46 blocks). Reilly and O’Connell were the team captains.

“Going into the season we had a void at the setter position,” DeJarld said. “We were hoping Nancy would be able to fill that. Being a sophomore, that’s a huge leadership role. We play in front of 2,000 people frequently. She handled the position well and she handled the pressure well. She took off and improved every day. She was able to lead a team and direct seniors and juniors. She ran the court well and was a huge part of this success.”

Charley Niego of Mother McAuley
Charley Niego of Mother McAuley

Niego said the team had to overcome doubts from the outside.

“At the beginning of the season we weren’t expected to be as good as we were because we lost a lot of talent,” she said. “We realized how good we were when we started beating the out-of-state teams. We had a lot of fight in us.”

McAuley was 5-1 this season in three-set matches, which included the three-set win over Minooka in the 4A final.

“We were down in a lot of third sets and never gave up,” Niego said. “We were mentally strong. We played a lot of good competition and teams from out of our state and we showed we could play against top competition.”

O’Connell said the team “was special from the very beginning.

“Everybody bought in and trusted each other. We bonded very well. We knew we lost some big seniors we relied on a lot. We knew we would have to step up and if we did that we knew we could accomplish big things. We pushed each other to get better. We played in a lot of big matches and got down by some big deficits. We never thought we would lose. We kept coming back.”

The storied history of the program is something that DeJarld never forgets.

“We try to keep the tradition going,” she said.

“This program has been an important part of my life. I was on two state title teams (1984 and 1985) and came back in 1995 and we were No. 1 in the nation. You never know if something like that is going to come along again. Now we’ve won 15 state titles. Keeping the tradition going is very important to me. Our staff has a lot of former players on it.

“It gets tougher and tougher every year because the teams we play and the players we go against keep getting stronger. It’s a big deal to be part of a program like this. I’m proud and honored to be coaching in it.”

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