Blending the top players from different high schools can be challenging for any club team.
But building team chemistry wasn’t a problem for the High Performance U17 Elite girls volleyball team.
The core has been together for three to four years and four of those players — Lily Rogers, Jillian Mattingly, Kelsey Watson and Emily Henken — all attend Cor Jesu.
“With all the different clubs, for them to stay together as long as they have is pretty unique and to have four from the same high school is pretty unique,” High Perform U17 Elite coach Kevin Dunn said. “I think it’s a testament to their competitiveness and how close knit they are that they go to high school together and they still want to play together in the club season.”
Attending high school together wasn’t by design. Only Mattingly and Henken played club together before the quartet ended up at Cor Jesu.
“We see each other during the summer and we see each other every single day at school and in the afternoons during the high school season, but then we also get to come here and spend two or three hours together in this gym, so it builds a lot of chemistry between us,” Rogers said. “When you spend that much time with someone, you know them so well and you know their moves and their mannerisms and what they’re going to say before they say it.”
Added Watson, “Really getting to know how to work with people, you work with someone all year long it helps, especially the setter’s relationship with the hitter.”
This unique bond will continue past this season as Mattingly and Henken, along with High Performance teammate Carlie Rodgers (Lindbergh), will play for St. Louis University in fall 2020.
“We did it on our own,” Henken said of the SLU recruitment and decision. “I guess fate just led us together.”
The unity has paid off as the team qualified for the open division in the USA Girls National Junior Division Championships in Indianapolis this week.
“It’s obviously a really talented group,” Dunne said. “The best part about this group is how hard they work to get better. They’re super competitive, they’ve been together for a long time. It’s a joy to not have to worry about a mentality. Their mentality is to come in and get better every day and they really enjoy doing it. It makes my job easy.”
High Performance’s U17 roster is a who’s who list of area volleyball talent.
Henken and Anna Wilkison (Incarnate Word) attack from the outside, while Mattingly, Watson and Pavandeep Kaur (Francis Howell) buoy the middle. Anya Mehta (Whitfield) and Kylie Schaffer (Francis Howell North) hit from the right side.
Rodgers and Brooke Plessner (St. Joseph’s) form a solid back row, while setters Rogers and McKenna Kruse (Villa Duchesne) run the 6-2 offense.
Despite the ultra-talented roster, High Performance will have its work cut out for it in the open division, which features the top 36 teams in the country.
“It’s incredible,” Dunn said. “You look at the teams in our pool and everybody is really good. Everyone has players who are going on to play D-I volleyball. You have some teams with girls that are huge — 6-4, 6-5 — and you have other girls who are just super talented. We talk a lot about opportunities versus obstacles. We look at every team we play as an opportunity to play against and beat a really good team.”
Chemistry may not have been a problem, but injuries were. High Performance struggled in several early qualifiers without its full lineup, but got healthy in time to put its best foot forward in the final qualifier of the season.
“We’re going in seeded 34th out of 36,” Dunn said. “Part of that is because of our finishes in some of the tournaments where we had some injuries. It doesn’t matter where we’re seeded because there are no give-me’s. If we can stay healthy I think we can do something special.”
That feeling extends to the players.
“We got our open bid,” Mattingly said. “We’ve been working hard for it. We haven’t had all of our players all the time, which isn’t an excuse because everybody knows how to play every position, but I think now that we’re back on our normal routine that will help over the weekend.”