Smalling and Niego are our football and volleyball Players of the Year

  • Written by Anthony Nasella



Photo by Jeff Vorva


Ricky Smalling/Brother Rice

Brother Rice senior wide receiver Ricky Smalling has proven his ability as a marquee athlete throughout his career for the Crusaders.

But Smalling also made strides in the classroom during his senior year which demonstrated his emergence as a student athlete whose leadership and impact on the gridiron led to his selection as the 2016 Reporter/Regional Football Player of the Year.

“We’re all proud of Ricky not just because of the player he has become but more importantly his improvements in the classroom,” Brother Rice head coach Brian Badke said. “He’s grown so much over these past four years.”

On the field, the Illinois-bound Smalling caught 80 passes for 1,336 yards and scored 18 touchdowns while helping Brother Rice to a state playoff berth and a 9-3 record.

From Week 1, Smalling was off and running. In the Crusaders’ first game at the Kickoff Classic at Soldier Field against Marist, he caught touchdown passes for 56 and 39 yards in Brother Rice’s 31-7 romp over the RedHawks.

Smalling racked up 186 yards and hauled in three touchdown passes in the Crusaders’ 42-7 rout of defending Class 6A State Champion Montini in week 4. His 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns helped Brother Rice to a thrilling 49-42 win over Mt. Carmel in week 6.

“Big-time players step up in big-time games, and Ricky stepped up whenever we needed a big play” Badke said. “The statistics speak for themselves. He had a tremendous career here at Brother Rice and a great senior year.

“He made a name for himself that people will never forget here at 99th and Pulaski. He was part of a group of seniors who went 35-8 in four years. I think his future is bright down at Champaign and beyond.”

The 6-2, 195-pound Smalling, who has a 4.4 40-yard dash time, improved on his junior numbers of 1,165 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He humbly deferred to the talents of quarterback Dino Borrelli, who also had a monster senior year with 3,377 yards passing with 40 touchdowns.

“I had a great year thanks to Dino throwing me the ball so effectively,” Smalling said. “Everybody contributed. I wouldn’t have had the year I had without those guys. I just kept focused on my plan of excelling in football and my studies, and everything has turned out well.

“I thank Coach Badke for pushing me to become the player that I am.”





Photo by Jeff Vorva


Charley Niego/Mother McAuley

For as much as Mother McAuley junior Charley Niego was a physical presence for the Mighty Macs this season – leading them to an Illinois High School Association Class 4A state volleyball championship and a No. 1 national ranking by  – one facet of her game was especially evident to head Coach Jen DeJarld.

“As much as Charley works so hard to be a better physical player for us, one of the biggest improvements in her game from her sophomore year is her mental toughness,” DeJarld said. “As a sophomore, she wasn’t required to do as much for us. She embraced the pressure this season.”

The noteworthy statistics that Niego finished with in the midst of that pressure – 498 kills, 473 digs, 69 blocks and 25 aces which figured big in the team’s staggering 40-1 record – made her the selection for the 2016 Regional/Reporter volleyball Player of the Year. It’s the second year the newspaper honored a volleyball player. McAuley’s Kayla Caffey was the first winner in 2015.

Niego delivered 12 kills and 17 digs in a three-set win over Geneva in the Class 4A Hinsdale South Supersectional that saw the Mighty Macs having to rebound from deficits in each set victory to secure the trip to the state finals. She delivered 17 kills a few days earlier in a sectional championship win over Marist.

At Redbird Arena, Niego racked up 14 kills in the two-set semifinal win over Niles West. In the 25-19, 19-25, 25-19 championship victory over Minooka, McAuley once again rallied from deficits to prevail. Niego shined with 14 kills and 15 digs in the title match to help the team with the 15th state title in school history.

“Charley is very multi-faceted in all the things she does for us,” DeJarld said. “The competiveness she brings every day to the practice carries over to the match. You really only need just one person to lead that, and she does that for us.

“Great players play great under high pressure, and Charley is that player. She raised her game to the next level – a championship level.”

Niego, who verbally committed to Notre Dame her sophomore year, simply wanted to make the biggest impact that she could.

“I made sure I was especially prepared for every game,” Niego said. “I definitely wanted to contribute more this year than last year and learn to move on from my mistakes. This season was so satisfying.”