Photo by Jeff Vorva
Charley Niego lets out a yell after receiving a state championship medal.
When Charley Niego walked through the gym doors at Mother McAuley High School for her first volleyball practice three years ago, she had one goal.
She wanted to be on a team that won an Illinois High School Association volleyball championship, just like her mother – Therese Boyle-Niego – did in 1980 and 1981.
It was a bond that was important to her, and, if she needed any inspiration, there was always Boyle’s retired No. 5 in the gym to look at. Or, heck, she could look at her own shirt as school officials allowed her to wear her mother’s old number.
The trouble was, in recent years Benet Academy became a state power and won Class 4A titles in 2014 and 2015, knocking out McAuley in supersectional and sectional action respectively. Heading into the 2016 campaign, Geneva was a preseason national power and McAuley was considered a pretty-good-but-not-great squad. Even coach Jen DeJarld had her doubts about this team early in the season.
Niego had just two more chances for her wish to come true and it didn’t look like it would be in the cards her junior season.
“Going into the season we knew we lost some players from the previous season and we were trying to get to know the new players,’’ Niego said. “Our goal was to take every game and play the best we could. State was in the back of our mind like it is every year but we just kind of took it slow.’’
Well, slow-and-behold, the Mighty Macs not only won the Class 4A state title in November, but in the following weeks, Prepvolleyball.com, USA Today/AVCA and Max Preps all named the 40-1 Macs national champions.
With the 6-foot Niego hitting close to .400 and coming up with 498 kills, 473 digs, 69 blocks and 25 aces on a national championship team, she was named the 2016-17 Regional/Reporter Athlete of the Year.
She went on to win several awards including being the first Mighty Mac to win the Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year.
With her mother and father, basketball star Charlie Niego, giving her pretty good bloodlines, the Morgan Park resident had to make a choice late in her St. Cajetan athletic career – basketball or volleyball?
“In seventh grade I dropped basketball because I loved everything about volleyball,” she said. “It’s always been my dream to win state just like my mom. I didn’t care for the contact in basketball and I liked volleyball more.’’
“My mom and I both happy that we were able to win a state championship and my sister (Grace, a libero who is going to be a sophomore in the fall) is hoping to win one, too,’’ she added.
As for dad, who was once in Sports Illustrated with three of his four brothers for basketball accomplishments?
“He was fine about it,” she said. “He respected my decision.’’
By the way, Charley is her real name. It is not a nickname.
Niego, who verbally committed to Notre Dame her sophomore year, and the Mighty Macs may have been the best in the nation, but they weren’t always dominating postseason opponents. They had all sorts of problems with Marist in a 25-22, 25-20 sectional final battle and had to make monumental comebacks in a 22-25, 25-20, 25-21 supersectional win over Geneva. The title match against Minooka was no picnic as the Macs won 25-19, 19-25, 25-19.
“Even when we were down, we kept fighting back,” she said. “We knew it was now or never. We just kept pushing. We were down a lot during the season but when we would get down, our endurance would just increase.’’