In 2017, Lincoln-Way East High School fell just short of the ultimate finish line — losing to perennial Illinois boys volleyball power Glenbard West in the state final.
But with a plethora of experience returning, the Griffins blew past that finish line in 2018, winning the Illinois boys’ state high-school title under the direction of longtime coach Kris Fiore, who is the 2018 VolleyballMag.com/TallSlim Tees Boys’ High School Coach of the Year
“When you get to the state tournament, experience is a huge factor,” Fiore said. “The kids returning had been part of that team and a good chunk of those 10 kids played in that game. They had a lot of motivation and they knew what to expect. They wanted to get it done.”
And get it done they did.
East, located in the Chicago south-suburban town of Frankfort and drawing students from the towns of Frankfort and Mokena, took care of Oak Park-River Forest in two in the quarterfinals before winning a three-setter against New Trier from the Chicago North Shore town of Winnetka.
That set up the finale against Naperville-based Neuqua Valley, with the Griffins winning the state title in three and avenging a loss to Neuqua from earlier in the season. As a side note, Neuqua Valley dispatched East sister school Lincoln-Way West (out of New Lenox) in the quarterfinals.
“We had two kids (Loyola of Chicago-bound duo of Ian Piet and Mike Herlihy — two of the team’s four captains along with Jeremy Walsh and Caden Wise) who have started for us since they were sophomores and this was their third time in the state tournament,” Fiore said. “We had a lot of experience and that helped us. We almost got knocked out of the semis but the kids were determined to come through. We dropped the first set in the semis and in the finals and we were able to pull it off.”
Fiore, whose 2014 team also won the state title, had particular high praise for Piet and Herlihy, two of five players on a well-balanced Griffins team who had more than 100 kills each (Piet led the team). “They are great kids that were determined and wanted to lead by example and get the job done,” he said.
Fiore, who noted the program has benefited over the years from having the Ultimate Volleyball Club in Frankfort and the grade schools having a volleyball program, is no stranger to the local community in Frankfort. He graduated from the old Lincoln-Way High School where he played volleyball. He’s been the boys’ head coach for nine years at East and will be beginning his third year as the girls’ coach. Fiore, an Iowa State graduate who played club there, got his first head-coaching gig while doing his student-teaching at South Hamilton High School in the small town of Jewell, Iowa.
“When I took the job nine years ago, I took over for Dawn Murphy, who was my coach when I played here,” he said. “This area has really grown to the point we now have three separate campuses with separate sports teams.”
Fiore said the program’s success can ultimately be traced to a number of factors, including his staff, which this year included Jesse Alvarez, Brian Danielson, Andy Wingate and Jon Johansen.
“I’ve been blessed as a coach to have a consistent staff the last three or four years at the varsity and lower levels,” said Fiore, who has directed East to four state finals appearances since 2014, including three top-2 finishes and has a career record of 292-58 in nine seasons. “That consistency year in and year out gives us a good formula. The kids have bought into our approach and they see this success coming into high school and want to play boys’ volleyball at Lincoln-Way East and be a part of a program that has a lot of success. We’ve also been blessed with kids who work hard and kids who are talented.”
In the end, Fiore stressed, it’s his players who determine the outcome not the coaches.
“They are the ones winning the big games for us on a consistent basis,” he said. “We have consistency in the program from the top to the bottom and that has been a big key for us.”