Chicago Suntimes article - by Phil B
Benet sophomore setter Sara Nielsen was nearly pressed into action last year at the Wheaton Classic when regular setter Stephanie Sinnappan fell ill moments before the championship match. But Nielsen remained on the bench when Sinnappan returned and led the Redwings to the tournament title.
Fast forward one year. Sinnappan has graduated, and Nielsen is now running the show.
Saturday in the championship match against surprise finalist Libertyville, Nielsen handed out 19 assists and added an ace, two blocks and a kill as Benet claimed its fourth consecutive Wheaton Classic title and sixth in the last seven years, 25-10, 25-18.
Sophomore Veronica Snelling was the recipient of eight of those assists. Tournament MVP Rachael Fara added five kills and a block, junior Tiffany Clark had four kills and an ace and Dana Griffin had three kills, three aces, a block and 17 digs for No. 3 Benet (14-0).
Nielsen admitted that the weapons she has at her disposal and a defense anchored by Natalie Canulli and Juliana Melby (five digs) make her job easier.
“We have so many great hitters in all different positions, the back row defense is great, everyone makes it so easy for everything to flow together,” she said. “Today, we really focused on our side of the net and doing what we needed to do. Our goal is to be the best defensive team in state.”
That defense limited Libertyville (16-4) to just four kills in Game 1.
“If we can extend rallies with our defense and make people hit shots that they’re not comfortable hitting, that’s part of our goal defensively,” Benet coach Brad Baker said. “We had some good game plans going in and I thought our kids did a nice job executing the game plans.
“It helps having kids who played in the back row last year so they understand our defensive scheme. They are able to run it a little crisper, whereas last year we weren’t as fluid defensively as we are right now.”
Having two capable setters in Nielsen and senior Meghan Weber is also a bonus.
“Meghan’s a great setter, and Sara is a great setter, so we feel comfortable,” Baker said. “Right now, Sara’s running the show and she’s is doing a great job.”
Libertyville, which stunned Marist 13-25, 25-18, 25-16 in the quarterfinals and rocked Sandburg 25-21, 20-25, 25-23 in the semifinals, got four kills and block from Alex Basler and three kills and block from junior Hannah Zerwas.
“We can smile about (losing in the final) because we knew we were going to run out of gas,” Libertyville coach Greg Loika said. “We played a very long day of volleyball against some really great teams. Win or lose, it’s good for us toward the end of the season. But we’ll take the wins.”