By Randy Whalen
There’s something special going on with the Shepard girls volleyball team.
Heading into this week, the Astros were 20-7 overall and 9-0 in the South Suburban Red Conference. They have surpassed last season’s 19 wins and all but officially clinched the Red title, but there are greater goals to be attained for this veteran group.
“A big key for us is that we are playing as a family, as a team,” said junior Autumn Molenhouse. “We just bond together and that’s a huge thing. Everyone plays their role.”
Molenhouse and fellow junior Leah Bylut are both third-year varsity starters, who think there’s a special feel to this season.
“We’re just really good and play together as a team,” Bylut said. “We’re a close-knit group.”
Brian Zofkie is in his fourth season as Astros coach. Much of last year’s team is back, with only two seniors graduating. Aside from the collective experience of his players, Zofkie points to a trio of things that have contributed to this season’s winning ways.
“Resilience – with some players injured and other stepping up, and bouncing back quickly from a loss,” Zofkie pointed to as the No. 1 thing. “Teamwork – since we do not have that one standout player, we seem to get key contributions from different players every match
“Also, energy. This team likes to have fun, and they are fun to coach so they play with great energy, which in a momentum-based sport like volleyball is very important.”
Someone who is especially having fun this season is Molenhouse, who has transitioned from setting to being a setter and outside hitter.
“I’m having a blast hitting. It’s so much fun playing front row,” she said. “I actually play libero for my club team at UNO, so it’s really nice to be able to hit.”
Her stats bear that out. Through 26 matches, Molenhouse had 148 kills to go along with 280 assists and 168 digs.
Through the same number of matches, Bylut led the team in digs (313), good serve receives (339) and aces (45). She’s perfectly fine with not getting the glory of hitting.
“I’ve been playing libero since I was 12,” said Bylut, who plays for Sports Performance as a club team. “It just feels great to get a dig.
“Our goal was to beat Richards and win our side of the conference. But we are hoping to beat Lemont and win the conference outright.”
The Astros were scheduled to face Evergreen Park and Lemont this week.
Shepard beat Richards 25-19, 25-12 Oct. 1. That gave the Astros a two-game lead over the Bulldogs in the Red. In that match, Bylut brought up 11 digs, Molenhouse passed out 13 assists, junior outside hitter Katie Rohe led the offensive attack with seven kills and senior outside hitter Ellie Hall hammered five kills.
Rohe leads the team in kills with 220. Hall has added 77 on the season and sophomore setter/right side hitter Kaila Butvilas has contributed 240 assists, 109 digs, 60 assists, and 44 aces.
Shepard hasn’t won a regional title since capturing four in a row between 1989-92. The Astros, whose school record for wins is 30 in 1991 and 2014, are in the Class 4A Sandburg Sectional and hope to compete for a regional title.