Created:Sunday, December 1, 2013 12:23 a.m.CDT
Updated:Thursday, May 1, 2014 2:13 p.m.CDT
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Marian Central's Watling the Volleyball Coach of the Year

Marian Central’s volleyball team had obvious talent and skill as soon as the players entered the gym for summer camps. What that meant for the season remained a big question coach Laura Watling really couldn’t answer.

In years past, Watling could expect her teams to set their sites on appearing in the state finals or, at a smaller level, to win regional titles. But this year’s team was as young as it was hungry – a potentially dangerous combination. Without the right chemistry and rhythm, the Hurricanes could risk underachieving.

Watling turned the roster into a chess board, pulling girls out of their comfort zones and relying on a small number of veterans to help steer the more inexperienced players. Watling faced her own personal challenges, too. Her mother, a fixture at Hurricanes matches, died unexpectedly before the season began.

Concocting the perfect on-court threat was a tall enough order, but mixing the assignment with the stress of losing a parent could have made it impossible.

Instead, Marian Central came within points of appearing in the Class 3A state final for a third time in four seasons. The Hurricanes were one of McHenry County’s final two teams in the postseason this year. Marian finished 23-17 overall and collected Class 3A regional and sectional titles before bowing out to Chicago Payton in three sets in a supersectional.

For her success in the face of adversity both on and off the court, Watling is the 2013 Northwest Herald Coach of the Year as determined by the sports staff with input from local coaches.

“I think what made it so special was that we knew we had talent but it was a new team to put together,” Watling said. “We didn’t have the heir apparents that had been there for so long or that leadership, so from the get-go everyone was on equal playing ground, so to speak. They seemed to embrace that.”

Watling relied on seniors Frankie Taylor and Hannah Davis to become the vocal leaders on the court. Watling turned to sophomore Alex Kaufmann to set the offense. Other role players emerged and became significant threats, including sophomore middle hitter Rachel Giustino, who proved she could hit with the power of a player with a few years of varsity experience.

Marian became the team that refused to lay down. Of the Hurricanes’ 17 losses, 13 came to teams that won regional titles. Two of the four teams that did not win regional crowns had at least 30 wins during the regular season.

The Hurricanes really started to believe they could do something special Oct. 12 when they finished third in the Huntley Invitational. By the time Marian beat a more experienced and highly vaunted New Trier team the week before the postseason began, Watling knew her team was battle-tested and scratching its potential.

The wins were brief remissions from the grief. Before each home game, Watling went to the cemetery to visit her mother’s grave. In those quiet moments, Watling found clarity and strength, and she said all the things she wanted to say. It was a ritual Watling continued into the postseason.

Watling’s team wore its heart on its sleeve as much as she did. The Hurricanes rolled through the Woodstock North Regional and the Burlington Central Sectional, and a few unforced errors separated Marian and another trip to Redbird Arena in Normal.

“I was very fortunate because I had a phenomenal support system,” Watling said. “Those players and coaches are like family. As much as there is never a good time to go through this type of grief, to know that right afterward I had people I could trust to be supportive and understand what I was going through without questioning or judging (was huge). … It was a great release for me to be with them.

“That was one of the closest teams I’ve had,” she said. “I think that’s why things peaked so well the way they did.”