BY AARON PATTERSON firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — DANVILLE — There is no off season.
It’s a tagline used by Nike, and a motto adopted by athletes across the globe that are committed to reaching an elite status.
But for Schlarman Academy junior Laura Gross, it’s much more than a slogan. She lives it. It’s lifestyle she has gladly embraced with one goal in mind: to reach the highest level possible as an athlete and a volleyball player.
For the second year in a row, Gross has been named the Commercial-News Volleyball Player of the Year, and it is no secret she has put in the extra time necessary to become one of the area’s best.
The decision to make the extra commitment came at the end of last season when she chose to make volleyball her primary focus. That meant other sports, which she also loved to play, were going to take a backseat to her true passion.
“Volleyball, seriously, never stops, because right after Super-Sectionals, we have a week or two weeks until our first tryout for club,” Gross said. “It’s two Sundays of tryouts and then we start practice. If you want to count it as a break, it’s been two weeks.
“We made it to nationals last year (during the club season). Nationals was the first week of July, so it was overlapping. I seriously just did volleyball all year around.”
She never wavered in her commitment, and she is confident she is putting herself in the best position to succeed.
The possibility of fatigue both mentally and physically has been brought to her attention, but she isn’t second-guessing herself in the decision to go all-in.
“It’s nice because I like volleyball so much, and I’m just glad that I have had a whole year of it nonstop and I haven’t been like, ‘Wow! Why did I choose volleyball?’” Gross said. “It hasn’t been like that.”
What she has done, however, is improved her game and leadership skills. Along with senior Jordan Marganski, Gross helped lead the Hilltoppers to a second consecutive sectional title, and a program record 31 wins.
Individually, she now holds the Schlarman Academy program records for career kills (750) and blocks (316). After securing the single-season record for blocks last season, she went a step further this year and passed Brittany Brandon’s single-season kills mark with 310. Brandon had previously held the record with 300.
But it’s not only in stats that Gross has improved. Schlarman Academy coach Heidi Crane has seen it in other areas as well. In fact, instead of being burned out by consuming herself daily with volleyball, Crane believes the opposite has happened.
“I’ve seen quite a bit of growth with her playing ability, (and) her drive as far as being competitive and constantly wanting more,” Crane said. “She’s definitely been pushing herself.
“As far as leadership, we relied on her and Jordan quite a bit this year. She was one to stand up, and if something needed to get done, she didn’t hesitate. That was always nice. It was nice to have them keep pushing everybody, because basically playing middle, playing setter, playing outside, she’s playing about every position. She knows what everybody is going through, and she can push them and kind of encourage them.”
Gross had a good feeling about the season when the Hilltoppers defeated Jacksonville (Class 3A) in an early-season tournament. She led Schlarman Academy to the win with seven kills, two blocks, and seven digs.
Defeating Jacksonville was a hurdle the Hilltoppers had never been able to get past, and when they finally did, a sense of accomplishment filled the team.
“Just going to those tournaments and doing well in those tournaments (gave hope),” Gross said. “We won the Beecher tournament and won the Silver Division in Quincy. That was very reassuring.
“At the beginning of the year, we beat Jacksonville. I think that was really the point where I was like, ‘Wow! We can go far. We just beat Jacksonville, and they’re good.’ We were hanging with all of those teams. I think we had a losing record in that tournament, but I felt really good coming out of that tournament.”
The Hilltoppers ultimately fell in the Class 1A Super-Sectional to West Prairie, which finished third in the state finals.
With back-to-back Vermilion Valley Conference championships, a program record in wins, and two sectional titles under her belt, along with numerous personal accolades, Gross is still determined to make an appearance at Redbird Arena in the state finals before moving on to play in college.
She has not yet decided where the next step will be, but hopes to decide prior to her senior season.
The Hilltoppers will be without starting seniors Lexi Rangel, Marganski, and Janelle Marion next year, but along with Gross, they will return Sierra Bell, Joslyn Dietzen, and Shelby Mascari. There is also a promising group of athletes entering the program next season, and Gross is determined to build on her already successful career.
“I don’t really reflect on it individually,” she said of her success. “I know that we have a lot of hardware now, and that feels good. But, we wanted that gold banner in there, and that didn’t happen.”
That remains the goal. And until she graduates from Schlarman Academy, there will be no off season.
Commercial-News All-Area Volleyball First team Year School Brooke Ahrens so. Covington Mary Bass sr. Bismarck-Henning Laura Gross jr. Schlarman Maci Kyger sr. Attica Jordan Marganski sr. Schlarman Janelle Marion sr. Schlarman Emilie McFadden sr. Salt Fork Rachel Miles sr. Armstrong-Potomac Miranda Synesael sr. Seeger Morgan Zindars sr. Armstrong-Potomac Second team Year School Becca Barton sr. Seeger Kelsey Buckman jr. Geo-RF Regan Foster jr. Covington Peyton Jones jr. Oakwood Kalyn Learnard jr. Salt Fork Katie Market sr. Seeger Mariah Rolinitis so. Westville Kendra Wallace jr. Covington Macee Williams fr. Fountain Central Maddie Winkler sr. Bismarck-Henning Honorable mention -- Taylen Balding, sr., North Vermillion; Lauren Barthalow, jr., Westville; Sierra Bell, so., Schlarman; Paige Benskin, so., North Vermillion; Stephanie Bott, so., Bismarck-Henning; Estella Bush, jr., Salt Fork; Sadie Edwards, jr., Oakwood; Sarah Ellis, sr., Chrisman; Maggie Fishero, fr., Fountain Central; Makayla Gayler, sr., Oakwood; Jessica Hall, jr., Bismarck-Henning; Rachel Hannah, sr., Covington; Kara Harmeson, jr., Attica; Alexa Kantout, sr., Westville; Kyla Keeling, fr., Fountain Central; Jenny Kimbro, so., Salt Fork; Mackenzie King, so., Danville; Kaylynn Kirkpatrick, sr., Attica; Abbie Knight, sr., Oakwood; Rylee Martin, jr., Hoopeston Area; Tristyn Mingee, jr., Georgetown-Ridge Farm; Tori Munson, sr., Seeger; Alexis Rangel, sr., Schlarman; Mikayla Rolinitis, sr., Westville; Britton Seaman, jr., Salt Fork; Erika Solis, sr., Hoopeston Area; Lexi Sliva, sr., Georgetown-Ridge Farm; Alissa Totheroh, jr., Milford; Allie Trosper, sr., Salt Fork; Harley Verhey, sr., Seeger; Mackenzie Vinson, so., Armstrong-Potomac; Meghan Vinson, Armstrong-Potomac; Shelby Warner, so., Chrisman; Hannah Wells, jr., First Baptist; Macey Williams, jr., Armstrong-Potomac.