By Mark Gregory
A season ago, Niles West advanced to the IHSA state final four – but did so as an underdog.
This season, the Wolves have been a team with a target on their backs, however that did not stop them from taking their first step to their goal with a 25-, 25- win over Maine East in the championship match of the Fremd Regional in Palatine.
“A lot of people thought we were going to rebuild this year, but we had our stud Natalia (Pehar) coming back,” said Niles West coach Stacy Roth. “We had Nicole (Zelazko) back as a senior and we added a freshman who plays all around as a freshman [Elianna Scalero]and you don’t see that normally – and I can go on and on about the girls we had coming up that don’t have the state experience, but they are very talented players.”
At times, Pehar took control of the match for the Wolves in the face of chants of ‘over rated’ from the Maine East student section.
“She didn’t let that get to her,” Roth said. “She executed. Her kill ratio was awesome, her execution was great, she is a gamer and she wants to go downstate again. She is a competitor.”
That focus is what Roth said has been the key this season for the Wolves (26-6).
“We try to keep them relaxed because when we can keep them relaxed, that is when they can play,” Roth said. “When they tense up or when they start thinking about all that outside sutff, we are not a good team. Last year we were the hunters, this year we are being hunted and we tell them not to worry about that and just play your game.
“There are so many factors that go into it. We have amazing junior high coaches that really care and are passionate about preparing these girls and all the club work the girls are doing in the offseason and the summer camps and just their attitudes. These girls have such great attitudes. They work hard, they want it and they saw what we did last year and they think, why not this year?”
While Maine East fell short of winning an upset regional like Niles West did a year ago, coach Kevin Bohn was still happy with the season.
“(Niles West) has a lot of dynamic players. They are very talented and tall team – we don’t see teams like that with a tall front and we got blocked a ton. They served really agressive and we were not able to run the offense that we typically do,” he said. “I am proud of our team, we had a really great season and we had a lot of talent. I am sorry to see these girls go, but we will appreciate what happened this seaosn and move on.”
The Blue Demons posted a 23-11 record, which ties the school record for wins in a season with the 2004 and 2014 teams. Those teams each won regional titles.
“As tough as it is to lose, we have to recognize what we did,” Bohn said.
While Maine East loses several seniors from this year’s team, there are several player coming back that grew during this season.
“The younger players learned a ton from the experience they got this season as well as from some of the senior girls and I am hoping that continues over to next season. We do have a lot of talent coming up and I am optimistic about the future for Maine East.”