BY AARON PATTERSON
While practicing with one of her club volleyball teammates, Schlarman Academy’s Laura Gross unleashed a kill so fierce that her teammate could think of only one way to describe it: “Hulk Smash.”
The word quickly spread, and it didn’t take long for her friends and Schlarman Academy teammates to adopt it as her nickname — and with good reason. Gross’ newest moniker wasn’t simply the result of a one-hit wonder, but symbolic of how she plays.
Each time Gross steps onto the court, the intensity and effort put into every block and every kill often reverberates throughout the gym, and is usually followed by thunderous waves of approval from the home crowd.
“With Laura, she’s always putting in 110 percent,” Schlarman Academy coach Heidi Crane said. “There may be practices where she stays after or comes in early to put in a little bit of time. Working with her, you can always tell that she is mentally trying to make herself better — and physically. She puts in the time, and the payoff, clearly, is her ability and what she is able to do.”
After only two seasons of high school volleyball, Gross has made a name for herself as arguably one of the best hitters and blockers in the area.
The Hilltoppers sophomore and 2012 Commercial-News Volleyball Player of the Year had already begun receiving attention from collegiate programs as a freshman, had a rookie season worthy of being named to the All-Vermilion Valley Conference first team, and was heavily considered as last year’s Commercial-News Player of the Year.
But there was a real possibility none of that would have ever happened.
Gross grew up playing soccer and was in the U.S. Olympic Development Program. It wasn’t until her sixth grade year that she was exposed to volleyball.
“I didn’t like it at first,” Gross said. “I played soccer and I thought volleyball was boring. Sixth grade volleyball isn’t exciting. I didn’t really like it, but I played again. Then, I played up in a higher grade and it got more exciting after that.
“It was more exciting than just bumping it over. It was like eighth grade when I decided I really liked volleyball. I had to decide whether or not I was going to do soccer in high school or volleyball.”
She chose volleyball, and so far her numbers confirm it was the right decision.
In two years, Gross has recorded 440 kills, 407 assists, 254 blocks, 267 digs, and 55 aces. She has led the team in kills both her freshman (181) and sophomore (259) seasons, as well as blocks (98 as a freshman, 156 as a sophomore), and has been second both years in assists, right behind current junior Jordan Marganski.
Though her coaches realized her potential, Gross wasn’t quite sure the impact she would have playing at the varsity level as a freshman.
But once she got on the court, the questions subsided, and at times, she forgot it was only her first year of high school. That is, however, until the crowd began chanting “She’s a freshman” each time she recorded a kill or block.
“It’s just awesome,” Gross said. “They’re cheering for you. When you’re playing, you don’t really think about, ‘I’m just a freshman,’ but when they remind you, it’s like, ‘Oh, I am just a freshman.’ It was exciting.”
What wasn’t so exciting, perhaps, was the hype that followed and the potential pressure of living up to the lofty expectations she had set for herself.
“Over the summer, I was thinking about it,” she said. “Freshman year, I went in and had nothing to lose. This year, I’m competitive, so I knew what last year’s stats were, so I guess you just always over-think that and say, ‘What if I’m not as good as I was last year.’ There was more pressure this year.”
Gross more than lived up to the hype, and much of her success has come from remaining competitive and putting in the extra work outside of practice. However, that hasn’t kept the sophomore from enjoying life as a high school student.
On November 26, Gross turns 16, and like all teenagers, is anxious to get behind the wheel.
As for her friends, she considers those she shares the court with some of her best. The evidence is clear in the Hilltoppers’ team chemistry, but also as expressed through countless stories and inside jokes from bonding and bus trips.
“This year was so crazy,” Gross said. “We were all best friends and just having a good time in the locker room and before the game. Bus rides were awesome. We had a couple seniors freshman year, but then this year with Ella (Black) being the only senior, we wanted to go far. We knew we could go far. We all had more experience than freshman year. It was a really good season this year, and we all got along.”
While Gross is enjoying the experience, she also realizes that time is flying by much quicker than she anticipated. Looking to the future means beginning to prepare for life after high school, and that means doing everything possible to assure she can continue her career in college.
“I just want to play college volleyball,” Gross said. “D-I would be the dream. That’s stuff I think about everyday.
“It’s crazy because last year I was like, ‘Oh, it’s so far away.’ This year, it’s like, ‘I was just a freshman, and now I’m already done with the volleyball season and starting club season.’ I think club season is going to be really good for college. It’s crazy how I’m already a sophomore.”
Gross will soon begin practicing with her Prime Time club elite team, and is planning to continue working on her game during the summer.
While she will attempt to build on her personal accolades, the bar has without question been raised for the team as well.
Gross, Marganski, and Black led the Hilltoppers to an undefeated Vermilion Valley Conference season, first VVC and sectional title since 2006, and tied the school record for wins with 29. With only one departing senior, Gross and Schlarman Academy look forward to even more success in 2013.
“I’m hoping that since we do have a young team, we can continue to build our program and hopefully make it even further than we did this year,” Crane said. “As far as her success, I see endless ability. The potential that’s there, and she’s already successful and already talented, is just going to increase tenfold.
“I’m excited for what it’s going to bring. I know the girls are excited. They’re excited for next year. It’s just going to keep improving.”
First team Year School
Brooke Ahrens freshman Covington
Ella Black senior Schlarman
Morgan Gerbsch senior Bismarck-Henning
Laura Gross sophomore Schlarman
Jordan Marganski junior Schlarman
Darby Martin senior North Vermillion
Lauren McKenzie senior Bismarck-Henning
Jordan Ogle senior Danville
Katie Shaw senior Westville
Erika Sierberns senior Armstrong-Potomac
Second team Year School
Abby Bergman senior Bismarck-Henning
Alexus Jimson-Miller senior Danville
Kinsey Knauth senior Milford
Aliah Larsen senior Covington
Janelle Marion junior Schlarman
Devin McFadden senior Hoopeston Area
Emilie McFadden junior Salt Fork
Rachel Miles junior Armstrong-Potomac
Miranda Synesael junior Seeger
Maranda Witty senior Bismarck-Henning
Honorable mention — Korri Allen, sr., Seeger; Taylen Balding, jr., North Vermillion; Lauren Barthalow, so., Westville; Mary Bass, jr., Bismarck-Henning; Sierra Bell, fr., Schlarman; Brett Bishop, sr., Chrisman; Catie Brandt, sr., Georgetown-Ridge Farm; Kelsey Buckman, so., Georgetown-Ridge Farm; Lynette Buggs, sr., Danville; Cayla Davis, sr., Hoopeston Area; Taylor Ellis, sr., Bismarck-Henning; Abby Grubb, sr., Fountain Central; Rachel Hannah, jr., Covington; Harlena Hardin, sr., Oakwood; Peyton Jones, so., Oakwood; Olivia Kagels, sr., Covington; Mackenzie King, fr., Danville; Abbie Knight, jr., Oakwood; Maci Kyger, jr., Attica; Kayln Learnard, so., Salt Fork; Madison Luecke, sr., Milford; Gretchen Marshall, sr., Attica; Bridget Mattingly, so., Chrisman; Kaylee Morman, sr., Oakwood; Jessica Muehler, jr., Salt Fork; Adrianne Pate, fr., Westville; Toria Plotner, sr., Salt Fork; Colby Pomar, sr., North Vermillion; Mariah Rolinitis, fr., Westville; Mikayla Rolinitis, jr., Westville; Britton Seaman, so., Salt Fork; Allison Seifert, sr., Georgetown-Ridge Farm; Lexi Sliva, jr., Georgetown-Ridge Farm; Linley Smith, sr., Fountain Central; Brittany Spicer, sr., Bismarck-Henning; Alissa Totheroh, so., Milford; Meghan Vinson, jr., Armstrong-Potomac; Alyia Wilson, sr., Danville; Morgan Zindars, jr., Armstrong-Potomac.