Niles West brings back strong veteran group

Wolves returns four starters, eight seniors overall

By Albert Corvera
April 7, 2011 12:01 PM


COACH: Drew Roche (2nd season)

2010 RESULTS: 13-23 overall, 3-7 in Central Suburban League South Division (tied for 4th); lost to Evanston 20-25, 24-26 in Maine South Regional semifinals

RETURNING STARTERS: Seniors Patrick Cristi (libero), Patrick O’Connor (setter), Yonas Tekeste (middle hitter) and Paul Nasui (outside/right-side hitter)

OTHER VARSITY RETURNEES: Seniors Arben Cuca (outside hitter), Mikko Jimenez (defensive specialist), Patrick Zelazko (outside/right-side hitter) and Ray Laguit (defensive specialist/setter)

VARSITY NEWCOMERS: Juniors Alvin Lee (setter), Nick Hester (defensive specialist/setter), Jonathan Parrenas (outside hitter), Dange Gillespie (right-side/middle hitter), Erik Lopez (defensive specialist), Nathan Celinski (middle hitter) and Robert Bjorklund (middle hitter)

OUTLOOK: Entering a year stockpiled with experienced seniors and a good mix of juniors, Niles West's Drew Roche figures to have his team rebound from their 13-23 record in his first season as coach.

While this year’s group could benefit with another season of continuity along with eight returning players, working on the team chemistry and buying into the coaching philosophy will be a season- long process for the Wolves.

“That team chemistry is going to have to improve,” said Roche, whose team is 5-3 after the first eight matches. “Then they just have to kind of buy into our defensive and offensive philosophy. Once everyone is completely sold on it and invested in it, we do have some ability and we can definitely surprise teams.”

Following a season-opening 25-19, 25-19 loss to Maine West March 23, Roche has his team currently on a four-game winning streak following a fourth- place finish with a 3-2 record in the Maine East Tournament two weeks ago.

“Just in the short time our chemistry has improved and we expect it to continue,” Roche said. “But it still has to improve, not just even with the juniors and seniors but the seniors with each other. Only one of our players played club in the offseason. The rest of them didn’t play much at all. Not playing hurts their timing on a lot of things. So as the season wears on, they’ll get that down and we won’t have to worry about that quite as much.”

Roche figures players such as Arben Cuca to have a breakout year in his second year on varsity but first thrust into a starter’s role. Cuca is averaging 3.7 kills per game and has the team lead with 66.

“Arben is on the outside and we’ve been leaning on them a lot lately, especially in that Maine East tournament,” Roche said. “Nathan (Celinski) has been our other middle hitter opposite Yonas (Tekeste) and he’s really stepped up and showed flashes of being really good. He’s shown a ton of improvement in the short time we’ve been working with him. He’s our go-to hitter for sure.”

Patrick O’Connor, a 6-foot-4 senior, is a dual threat in attacking the ball due to his height advantage as a tall setter. So far this season, O’Connor leads the team with 137 assists, 11 blocks and has the third most kills with 22.

“(His height) makes it a lot easier on our passing,” Roche said of O’Connor. “It makes our passes look better. If they’re going to have an overpass, they really have to hit it pretty far high in order for Patrick to not go up and get it. It gives a lot more opportunity for our passers, a lot more flexibility and more room for error.

“On top of that, when we do get the pass up where we want it, Patrick can help kind of take away some of the blockers because he is a threat offensively as well as a setter. Ideally that opens up a lot of our hitters for some 1-on-1 battles.”

Thanks to Paul Nasui’s strong play on the outside prior to the start of the season, Roche has moved Nasui from the right side, where he played last year. That makes him making him and Cuca a viable 1-2 combination hitting outside. 

So far the move has paid dividends. Nasui has the second most kills with 28 and four blocks.

“(Nasui has) proven to be a one of our more dependable hitters on the outside,” Roche said. “And he’s been really been getting progressively better at it.”

A third-year returning starter, libero Patrick Cristi leads the team with 70 digs along with a 92.3 serving percentage. Mikko Jimenez, who saw a lot of court time last year, will play behind defensive specialist Nick Hester.

“Both (Cristi and Jimenez) are exceptional back-row players,” Roche said. “They make lack in size, but they don’t lack in toughness and intensity. They definitely show a lot of leadership in that back row for us.”

Celinski, who boasts a 45.2 kill percentage in all 18 games played, and Hester are the only juniors thrown into starting roles.

Hester, also a standout varsity golfer, has filled in nicely playing the back row for the Wolves with 73 serve receives and 33 digs, third most on the team.

With three of the six teams in the CSL South state-ranked (New Trier, Glenbrook South and Maine South), Roche figures it to be an uphill battle to unseat any of the teams from the top three spots. Evanston and Waukegan also figure to be tough battles.

“Our conference is loaded every year. That never fails,” Roche said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work. No doubt about that. Of course in the CSL South, we have two teams within the top 10 with Glenbrook South and New Trier, so they’re going to be the cream of the crop along with Maine South. It’s not going to be easy.”

QUOTABLE: “Our highs never got too high. Our lows never got too low,” Roche said following the Maine East Tournament. “Every time, we never lost two in a row. This team is showing the ability already to be able to have some short memory and bounce back.”