Cleveland volleyball coach Amy McGowan is not surprised one bit at how well Lauren Hurst has fared in her first high school season.
The 6-foot-1 outside hitter closed the Lady Blue Raiders' Region 3-AAA championship victory against Bradley Central on Tuesday night with three straight kills, with the last set up when her older sister Addison hustled to the back left corner and out of bounds to save a hard-fought point. Lauren finished the match with 13 kills, bringing her team-leading season total to 443.
On Thursday night, Cleveland (36-11) advanced to next week's Class AAA state tournament by sweeping Oakland in three sets, 25-16, 25-14 and 25-18, to finish 12-0 at home this season.
"I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that Lauren would come in and be an instant impact player for us," McGowan said. "I coached Lauren in middle school basketball, and she is extremely talented. You just knew she had that it factor from an early age. She and Addison are some of the best athletes just in general I've coached. They are good at everything they do. Just the way they move and whatever they take on. They are phenomenal athletes."
Through the region title match, the Hurst sisters have combined for 836 kills, 56 blocks and 471 digs this season for Cleveland, whose eight-player rotation the Lady Blue Raiders believe is as solid as any in the state.
Another important newcomer is senior Mary B. Smith, a strong left-handed hitter who has helped put opponents away after transferring from Bradley Central. Cleveland, which went 21-12 last season, has won 29 matches in straight sets and has seven wins against teams against opponents with top-15 state rankings, including five in the top five.
"Before we got into the postseason, we sat down and went through a list of things we wanted to bring whenever we stepped on the court," said Smith, who had 268 kills and 56 blocks this season through the region title match. "The main things were being intentional, playing with grit and energy, along with trusting each other and valuing our time on the court together."
When Lauren Hurst was slamming the ball down for 29 kills in the region tournament on Tuesday, Smith was through the roof with excitement and often the first to celebrate with the budding superstar after every point scored.
"We are definitely an energy team," Smith said. "We feed off each other a ton, and it helps us put teams away. Whenever our freshman outside is killing the ball and all of our seniors and everybody else are doing well, it's easy to get hyped and cheer everyone on."
With a relatively young team — setter Kinslee McGowan (973 assists, 159 kills, 86 aces, 32 blocks, 237 digs through region) and middle Lilly O'Bryan (55 blocks through region) are sophomores, while libero Brooke Eslinger (356 digs, 111 assists, 50 aces through region) is a junior — McGowan's coaching has been helped by senior leadership. Jordan Whitcraft has been a beast in the middle, where the senior leads the team with 63 blocks and a .278 hitting percentage through the region title win. Whitcraft, Smith and the Hurst sisters combined for 30 kills and one error in the region championship sweep.
"I can't even explain to you how pivotal Jordan and Mary have been as leaders to this team," McGowan said. "I have been shocked at how well they have led these younger kids. The seniors have a vision, and they want to win a state championship. They keep our younger kids in line, because they can get kind of goofy at times. The seniors can reel them back and say, 'Hey let's focus and get the job done.'"
Cleveland has never won more than one match at the state tournament, but now the program is shooting to win the whole thing.
"Everyone knows how good this team is playing together," McGowan said. "What they don't see is how much they love each other. That's what is going to take you far. There are teams we have played who are just as talented as we are. It comes down to chemistry, who wants it more and who loves each other more."