By Jason Maholy
Richards began this season with a little uncertainty following the departure of several key players from last year's squad.
Some of those questions have been answered as the Bulldogs had raced out to a 19-3 start entering play on Tuesday, but with that success new questions have risen.
Richards has rolled over the competition in the South Suburban Conference and came into this week 9-0 in the league, but is still questioning exactly how good they are. A loss to Sandburg on Sept. 24 – the Bulldogs' only loss in their last seven games – indicated they still have some growing to do if they want to be among the state's top teams.
Richards coach Troy Grevengoed has liked what he has seen from his players in terms of their growth, as individuals and within the team concept, and particularly in their willingness to play outside their comfort zones. Their confidence in themselves, one another and the overall team game has enabled them to take this step.
“The ladies are really buying into the mentality of just playing tough volleyball,” he explained. “I think early on they were relying on their skill sets because they didn't know how to push themselves mentally through the balls that may be a little bit tougher.”
Now, the girls are working more as a team, which has opened up the playbook.
“I can mix things up and give them something they're uncomfortable with, and they can thrive in that, versus just playing comfortable, safe volleyball,” he said. “Now, they're learning to push themselves through tougher points, tougher matches, even the tougher part of the season.”
Against Evergreen Park on Sept. 27, the Bulldogs coasted to victory in two sets, 25-15, 25-14. The Mustangs fought the good fight, but it was clearly a match-up of teams playing at different levels.
Grevengoed was encouraged to see another sign of growth – playing with a sustained energy and not easing up, despite not being particularly challenged.
“We played clean volleyball, and we didn't let the team we were playing change that,” he said. “They're a well-coached team, coach [Carrie] Berry is a great coach, so we still have to be up and be ready. We just have to make sure we're staying at our level all the time.”
Berry said the Mustangs simply didn't play at the level necessary to compete with a team at the top of the conference.
“We said any team can win on any given day, so I just wanted them to play hard and wanted them to execute and make the plays,” she said. “But we came out super flat and no energy, and you can't play against a stellar team like that without that energy.”
The Bulldogs attack was led by senior outside hitter Sarah Murczek, a Loyola commit who has taken her game to a new level in her final high school season.
“She's a special player,” Grevengoed said. “Really, really hardworking kid, and she wants to be great. And she goes out there and tries to do that every day.”
Murzcek's has taken on a leadership role of a veteran team that lost five seniors to graduation. Her high level of play combined with her work ethic and approach to the game have set an example to follow.
“That's what you need, to have someone who sets that tone and they follow that lead, and she likes that role,” Grevengoed said.
Murzcek was eager to step into the role of leader after seeing the examples set by the seniors before her.
“I wanted to be that leader,” she said. “Being a younger kid on varsity I watched the seniors step up and take on a leadership role, and that's what I was ready to do this season.”
Murzcek is taking nothing for granted this season. She came into the year with some uncertainty, given the departure of several key components to a team that went 23-4 and won the South Suburban Conference title.
“Just play every game like it's going to be my last,” she said. “Being a senior it's full of lasts for me this year, so I was ready to have a great season.”
The Bulldogs' success has “surpassed all expectations”, she added. That, along with the team's growth, has Murzcek optimistic as the postseason nears.
“We're playing really well, just focusing on getting our energy up, which will improve our overall game – and we can see the differences we're making,” she said. “We're definitely getting there. I'd say our skill is at a good level right now – it's just keeping that energy up in tough spots, not getting down on ourselves, really pushing to finish matches that are tough and getting us to that next level where we're ready to compete against really competitive teams.”