As the reigning Division III state runner-up, the Independence volleyball team opened the 2019 season with a big target on its back.
Every opponent will want a shot at knocking off the Blue Devils, who have had little trouble through their first three matches.
“The girls are playing pretty good right now,” Independence coach Tony Messina said.
That might be an understatement.
After closing the 2018 season with 15 straight wins heading into the state championship match against Versailles, the Blue Devils are 3-0 this season and have yet to lose a set. They have now won 18 of their last 19 matches.
The success isn’t unexpected.
Independence returned the bulk of its lineup from last year and the Blue Devils stacked their offseason and preseason schedules with Division I and Division II opponents.
“Our first two scrimmages, we had Padua, (St. Joseph Academy), Magnificat, Gilmour and the next one was Lake Catholic, Holy Name and Mags,” Messina said. “Out of the box, they were put to the fire. That’s what I want to do. Our schedule has some difficult matches in there. So far, so good.”
The Blue Devils also competed this summer in the Super 20 tournament in Toledo that brought together 20 of the top high school volleyball teams from around the state.
“What an experience for us,” Messina said. “It was three days of Magnificat, Padua, Notre Dame Academy, Toledo St. Ursula, St. Joe’s, so 15 of the 20 teams are Division I and II schools. Versailles was there, Coldwater was there. That was a great experience for us in late July.”
Playing without standouts Maddie Bilinovic, a Penn State commitment, and Hannah Wilson for most of the weekend, the Blue Devils finished in third place in the silver bracket.
“It was good for the rest of the girls and it was good for us,” Messina said. “It was respectable for a Division III team.”
Through three matches, Wilson, a sophomore, leads the team with 40 kills in nine sets. Senior Katie Taliaferro has 22 and junior Grace Smotek has added 19.
“She’s taking her game to the next level,” Messina said of Wilson. “If she keeps going, I told her this, she can be one of the best I ever coached. With her and Grace, I have two outsides that are both good enough to be six position players.”
Sophomore Abby Avila leads the team with 11 service aces and 84 assists and Bilinovic has posted a team-high 37 digs.
“We have some strong (defensive specialists),” Messina said. “Maddy is off the charts. She was banged up a little bit but she’s playing well. When she goes, it’s going to be a tough hole to fill.”
Bilinovic will leave a lasting legacy behind the same way Maura Collins did during her four years at Independence. Collins now plays for the University of Dayton.
“When Maura was here, she was kind of our everything and the girls that are seniors now were young and learning the system,” Messina said. “Last year, it was more of a team effort. This year, we’ve got some studs but it’s a new team, same dream. That’s what I keep telling them.”
While the Blue Devils have been dominant in the early part of the 2019 season, the goal is to play their best volleyball in November.
To make another deep postseason run, the Blue Devils will have to stay focused and determine the combination on the floor that will lead to more success.
“We moved Callie Prokopius to the middle and we have a freshman playing there as well,” Messina said. “We have a right-side lefty that’s not the tallest kid in the gym swinging in the middle right now. We’re figuring it out. Chemistry and staying healthy (is important). I don’t have the luxury if Abby or Hannah or Maddy goes down to go down my bench and pluck somebody that good. With the Division Is and IIs that we’ve been playing and in that tournament, they have that luxury.”