By Mark Maxwell
The Mother McAuley Mighty Macs reclaimed the Class 4A volleyball state championship on Saturday, elevating their own state record to 14 championships, boasting five more trophies than the next-winningest program in the state.
After an eight-year championship drought, the storied program returned to glory by defeating two-time reigning Class 4A state champion Benet Academy by the score of 25-22, 25-19. The Mighty Macs (40-2) posted their best record since the 1996 season, when they fell short to Downers Grove South in the AA state-championship tournament. McAuley didn’t lose a match in Illinois, as opposing coaches struggled to overcome the tremendous balance and depth of the Mighty Macs’ roster.
For instance, 5-foot-9 senior Courtney Joyce ended the season with the third most kills on the team — and she is a setter. Joyce also led the team in sets played, showing her versatility on the court. She came up big for her school, recording 26 assists and three kills in the championship.
Joyce’s teammate, junior Kelsey Clark, credited her coach for implementing a winning strategy that involves the entire team.
“Our strategy is basically just move around the ball, always be aware on defense. Our main thing is ball control and defense," she said. “That's what we mostly focus on. And then getting a good pass will set up our hitters. So it's basically just a mixture of passing, setting, setting choices and setting different hitters and stuff like that.”
Midway through the set, Benet held a 16-14 lead until Mother McAuley took four consecutive points and shifted the momentum. Benet never regained the lead.
When the Mighty Macs finally scored the final point, the moment took many of the players by overwhelming elation and surprise.
“The last point, I think everyone was anxious on the bench. I was on the bench at that point. We were all just anxious. We were like, 'C'mon, c'mon,'" Clark recalled. “And then, I don't know. When we won, it didn't hit me at first. I was excited, I was screaming, but it didn't really hit me. I think I saw Caeley (Hynes), and I just started to cry. I was like, 'Oh my god. This happened.' It was great. I was so happy.”
“In the moment, it just felt surreal,” added senior Lauren Carlson. “Like something you dream about since you're a little kid when you're coming to the volleyball camps over the summer. Then you get there and it's actually happening, and it doesn't even feel real. It's a dream come true.”
Though this was the first state championship for all of the girls on this team, it was hardly the first for their coach. Jen DeJarld won multiple state titles playing for longtime Mother McAuley coach Nancy Pedersen (788-110). DeJarld also witnessed several more championships while serving as an assistant coach under Pedersen. Though this is the first for DeJarld as a head coach, she found greater significance in the people she shared it with.
“I don't really look at it as my championship. It's great. It's the first one since I've been head coach," said DeJarld. “But I've been a part of so many as a player here as well as an assistant coach. To do it as a head coach, it's great. They're all special for many different reasons. To share it with my assistant coaches — who most all of them have won a state championship themselves, and I've coached them — to see them do it as a coach was special to me. And of course, it's special because I have my daughter on my team.”
Ryann DeJarld began attending Mighty Macs volleyball matches as early as two weeks of age, according to her mother’s account.
“Ryann was born during one of my volleyball seasons back in 1996, and I strapped her on me two weeks later and coached. So she has literally grown up in the program and in the gym,” said DeJarld. “She has seen us win the best, and she has seen us lose some of the worst. She's experienced it all. She came in with an understanding of what this is all about from Day 1. It was really cool to share it with her as a mom.”
The younger DeJarld contributed in the win by adding seven kills at the net during the championship.
Coach DeJarld only left Mother McAuley for a few brief years to play college volleyball. She returned and immediately became involved with her alma mater again, as a teacher and assistant coach. Few people understand the impressive history of the Mighty Macs volleyball team better than she does. It is a legacy that she has worked to pass down to her players.
“It's such an honor. It's just amazing to think of all the people that came before us and all their hard work as well,” Clark told CSNChicago.com.
“It has been so worth it because we've worked hard, too, to earn our title. It's such a rich tradition at McAuley. You just think of all of those teams, and you want to play harder. It's clear now. Everything is put into perspective how much I really love my team.”