Winning championship hardware in the girls Class 4A classification in Illinois is not an easy task.
To have four state title trophies in 4A falls into the quite remarkable category given the never-ending stream of high-caliber players and teams annually on display at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal each November.
Benet Academy coach Brad Baker happens to be the coach with those four Class 4A state titles, all coming since 2011 at the college prep school located in Lisle, a western Chicago suburb.
But No. 4 puts Baker into another category when it comes to coaching excellence. Baker’s Redwings team lost to fellow powerhouse Chicago Marist, the owner of the 2017 and 2018 Class 4A title belts, in October in two sets after having defeated the RedHawks (can you keep these nicknames straight?) in an earlier September.
After that loss to Marist, which put to bed any notion of an undefeated season, Benet didn’t miss a beat, winning its seven playoff games in straight sets (Illinois plays a best-of-3 format).
And to boot, Benet (41-1) got another crack at Marist in the 4A semifinals and vanquished the two-time-defending titlists 25-12, 25-23 before upending area neighbor Wheaton-Warrenville South 25-12, 25-16 in the finale. Of the 14 sets Benet played in the state series, 11 times its opponent failed to reach 20 points. It was the largest butt-kicking in the 4A final since Benet whipped Chicago-north-suburban Libertyville 25-10, 25-10 for the 2014 crown.
“4A is the real deal, not that the other classes aren’t good,” said Baker, the 2019 VolleyballMag.com girls high school coach of the year. “It’s a path where to get downstate you have Division I after Division I kid in your way and nationally ranked teams.
“In our supersectional (final eight in Illinois), they had a 6-3 outside and a Division I setter running the show (Minooka High School). We practice and play games for 10 weeks and then the tournament is three weeks long. We know we have to be at our best for three weeks. We have to be very good on that one night and to do it seven times in a row is very hard.”
Baker, who sports a 476-53 mark in 13 seasons at Benet, noted the 2-out-of-3 format in Illinois makes things even more interesting. “The longer a match goes, the more a team has a chance to get back to its norms,” he explained. “If you play for three hours maybe you side out 65 percent, but in a 45-minute match you might side out 40 percent and your season is done. If you play longer there are less chance for upsets, but the 2 of 3 format makes it more exciting and quicker. You have to make sure you are ready right from the tip.”
Benet Academy senior libero Hattie Monson, who is headed to Notre Dame, said Baker’s message during her four years at the school never wavered.
“For a couple reasons, coach Baker deserves a lot of credit for us winning state,” she said. “First, throughout my four years playing Benet volleyball he always kept the idea that we were going to win state in our heads. He never let up on us and always pushed us to our potential.”
Monson noted Baker always was on point when it came to off-the-court technology, akin to NFL and MLB teams embracing analytics.
“He spent countless hours watching film on opponents and helping us prepare for the other team,” she said. “This was especially crucial at state when we had to play our best to win.”
Junior setter Rachel Muisenga added: “He’s a great coach because he knows so much about the game. He spends hours watching film and preparing for each match we play. His dedication and knowledge of the game is superior to many coaches. He has been around volleyball for a long time and has seen many different types of players. He also is open to change and puts us in the best opportunity to succeed and win every match.”
Muisenga explained Baker never wavered in his belief of the team after the October Marist setback (Benet handed Marist two of its three losses this season).
“He stuck with us and made us better each day,” she said. “After our loss to Marist he gave us the motivation to move on and prepare to play them again.”
Baker admitted a 41-1 year on top of a state title was not in his initial late-summer 2019 thoughts.
“There is no way I thought we would go 41-1,” he said. “To win 40 matches is extremely hard and to win it all…there were really good teams out there and we also had Marist sitting in front of us, a team that returned a lot of good players and had won it last year and the year before. We had a lot of moving parts. To say we’d go 41-1 and beat a Marist team that probably thought they had a chance to go undefeated this year, nobody thought that.”
Monson (Notre Dame), Muisenga (Penn State commit), senior outside Sophie Gregus (Illinois signee) and junior outside Kyla Kenney led the way for the Redwings, while senior right side Colleen McGuire (UC Davis for beach) and sophomore middle Ann Marie Remmes also went over the 100-kill mark for the season. McGuire last played indoors as a sophomore. Gregus had eight kills in the final.
“We had all sorts of new kids,” Baker said. “This was a special group. We lost once to Marist on the last night of the regular season and it was the only time this year I saw us play bad. We were consistently really good. We had very good ball-control kids. We had no holes anywhere. We could do everything better than average in every spot. There were no weaknesses. You have to be talented, but you need to be talented in the right spots and the right positions. Plus, you need kids who like each other to make it all work.”
And as Muisenga noted, it doesn’t hurt to have an exceptional coach.
“Though we did have a lot of talent this year, I do not believe we could have been this successful without his help,” she said. “Personally, he gave me a great opportunity this year to lead the team and run the offense. Without his guidance, it would have been difficult. He cares a lot about each one us and our successes. I couldn’t ask for a more dedicated coach. He taught us how to bounce back and not turn away from defeat, but face it and conquer it.”
For more, see our list of 2019 High School All-Americans here.