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Wildcat Juniors 18 Black volleyball team ends run on a high note

07/07/2014, 1:00pm CDT
By Eric Van Dril | For Sun-Times Media | @VanDrilSports

The close-knit team placed fifth at nationals in Orlando, Florida.

Victoria Lord

In this Nov. 5, 2013, photo, Victoria Lord attacks the ball during a match in Winnetka. Lord said the Wildcat Juniors 18 Black team was “inseparable” this season. | File

In the five years they spent playing together on Wildcat Juniors club volleyball teams, Taylor Tashima and Haley Fauntleroy heard several horror stories about what life can be like on a team with poor chemistry.

The stories center around internal drama, the recent New Trier graduates both said, with one or two players upset about playing time. That bitterness eventually ends up eroding the squad’s cohesion.

Tashima and Fauntleroy never experienced that on their Wildcat Juniors teams, however. In fact, it was the complete opposite — especially this year.

“I was just at a graduation party, talking to a girl who played for another high school team and she said she hated club. ... She didn’t like her team, didn’t get along with them and didn’t even want to go to practices,” Fauntleroy said. “But I wake up in the morning and get home from school, excited to go to practices because I just want to be with my team.”

Fauntleroy, Tashima and recent Loyola graduates Kelsey O’Neill and Victoria Lord used words like family, sisters and best friends to describe their teammates on Wildcat Juniors 18 Black this year. Regardless of terminology, it’s clear how much they care for their teammates, which included New Trier's M.C. Magner, Niles West's Olivia Rusek, St. Ignatius' Jana Brusek, Glenbrook North's Lauren Emmert and Highland Park's Stela Kukoc.

“When we didn’t have practice, we’d go out to dinner,” Lord said. “Or if we got a weekend off, we’d have a sleepover together. We were inseparable as a team.”

All but Kukoc, a senior-to-be, is slated to play volleyball in college this fall, meaning that the AAU Junior National Championships in Orlando, Florida, was the team’s final volleyball tournament together.

Before 18 Black began playing at nationals, which wrapped up on June 20, the team addressed that.

“We sat down before the tournament and said, ‘We have four more days left to play together. We’ve been spending every day together for four years. This is it. Give it your all,’ ” Lord recalled. “It wasn’t as much about ... getting a certain place. It was like, ‘Give it your all for this team that’s always been there for you.’ ”

The teammates spent every moment possible together at nationals, Lord added. They hung out together right up until curfew, meeting in somebody’s room and spending the night making each other laugh. They spent one night watching the Disney Channel movie “Camp Rock,” and singing along together.

On the court, nationals was arguably 18 Black’s best tournament. It finished fifth in 18 Open, which is the tournament’s toughest division. It was the best a Wildcat Juniors team had ever done at nationals, but the tournament ended with everybody — even the coaches — in tears.

“As soon as we finished our last game, everyone broke down crying because we knew that was the last time playing together,” O’Neill said. “It was bittersweet. We knew we’d accomplished our goal, but we didn’t want to leave.”

Still, it was a pretty perfect finale.

“We’ve been friends since forever, and it was the best way to end our club experience,” Tashima said.

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