MINOOKA – After two years of being the “next big player,” Minooka junior outside hitter Alli Papesh tied up her shoes and stepped onto RedBird Arena’s court for the first time.
Twenty kills and a 4A runner-up trophy later, Papesh proved that she isn’t going to be the next great thing. She showed she is at the top of the list already.
Going into the season, she was touted as the outside hitter to beat in the area. No player consistently hit as aggressively or performed as consistently. Papesh can add one last thing to her spectacular season: Morris Herald-News Volleyball Player of the Year.
Despite all of the hype, the junior outside hitter didn’t expect to be named all-area first team or all-Southwest Prairie Conference. She didn’t even know she could earn Player of the Year accolades as a junior. She just went in wanting to play volleyball and to prove how good her team is.
“I knew that I had the opportunity to become the No. 1 outside on the team and possibly in the top outsides in the area,” Papesh said. “I wasn’t going to let that dictate how I played. I did my own thing. Next year, it’s the same thing.”
Doing her own thing consisted of 417 kills, two 20-kill performances, 19 double-digit kill performances, 276 digs, 85 blocks and 45 aces.
More impressive than those stats is how Papesh played well in big matches. Against rival Plainfield Central, Papesh played like she was a junior in college. With a double block at all times, she attacked so aggressively that she bounced the ball around the block. She ended the night with 20 kills and a .500 hitting percentage.
In one play of the state championship match, she faced a double block again and smartly tooled it for a point. The next play, the opposing outside went around for a middle attack. Papesh teamed up for a triple block to force a third game. She ended with 20 kills for the second time that season.
“I believe Alli is the best pin hitter in the state and her defense and serve receive have picked up tremendously,” Minooka coach Carrie Prosek said. “Last year, most teams were serving at her; this year, they were trying to stay away from her.”
Papesh works at improving every aspect of her game, and she accomplished that this season. As a sophomore, she had an impressive 242 kills, 73 blocks, 39 aces and 160 digs, but she bettered every statistic as a junior.
Since her transition from the middle to the outside, she has worked hours working in the gym and studying film of herself to see where she could elevate her skills. This season, her passing and defensive skills improved exponentially and she became smarter offensively.
“She has learned to hit every angle, mix up her shots and really read what the other teams were doing before she made the decision on which shot she wanted to take,” Prosek said. “We could always count on her and know that she would put the ball away. To have 20 kills and be the leader in kills in the state championship game says something.”
The junior outside further developed her skills because she’s has kept a strict training regimen.
After the high school season, she immediately started club and, once summer starts, she signs up for two to three private lessons a week. On the summer days she has off, she’s not lying around by a pool. She’s working on bettering her skills or she’s training with Craig Federico. On her off weekends, she does jump training.
Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed, but with Papesh it’s about her long-term goals in college.
“There will be mornings that I’ll have to get up early to lift or work on my ball control,” Papesh said. “If I can do it now, I will be able to do it when I’m older in college. Knowing that keeps me going. I know I’ve done it before. There have been times that I have been tired, but my parents pushed me to go to the gym. They were both athletes. They know the hard work that goes into this and they push me to keep going.”
Her parents helped Papesh stay motivated, and they also helped her when she was in the recruitment process.
Papesh had her first college scholarship offer when she was in eighth grade. That was the moment that she realized that she fell in love with the sport and decided she would play as long as possible. Since she was talented in her youth, she garnered a lot of colleges’ interest. She was looking at some of the elite programs, but her parents helped her realize that she wanted something else.
“I was looking at some Big 10 schools, but my dad asked me if I wanted to be a small fish looking in a big pond,” Papesh said. “I don’t want to be just another person. I want to be my own person and for people to know who I am. I knew that wasn’t going to happen at a bigger school, so I looked for a mid-major D1 school. Everything at Dayton made it feel like home.”
Papesh wants to put herself in the best position to see the court and make an impact for Dayton. The standout wants to make a name for herself like Wisconsin’s Molly Haggerty. When people talk about Minooka or Dayton, she wants to be on their mind.
Even though she wants to be well-known in the volleyball world, that’s not the most important thing to her. Papesh is a very competitive person that wants her team to succeed more than herself. The highlight of her season was not earning accolades and proving to other players that they should watch out for her. The best part of the season was her team making history.
“There were a lot of high hopes for this year’s team,” Papesh said. “One of our main goals was to prove that we could do it. We did a great job of it. We made it to state and that has never happened before. We were able to accomplish that as a team of juniors, which makes it easier to carry momentum into our senior season. I want that season to be better than my freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.”
There is one more season where we can expect Papesh to elevate her game even further.
Like last year, she has no expectations for her senior season. She doesn’t think she’s a shoe-in for any accolades because she earned them before. She just wants to play the game and make even more history with her teammates.
“I can’t say enough about Alli. She is such a phenomenal all-around player and person,” Prosek said. “She is so humble and is always thinking about the rest of the team. It is never about her and I think that is what stands out the most. She wants to win and she wants everyone to feel that and she is determined to do it. She is a great leader and role model on and off the court. I am so happy that Minooka has her for another year.”
“When my coach told me I got Player of the Year, that was the first thing that popped into my mind was ‘Do juniors even receive that honor?’ ” Papesh said. “When she told me, I had the biggest smile on my face. I called my whole family right away. Being able to accomplish something because I put all of my hard work into a season, not knowing it was even possible to get recognized proves to me and should prove to any younger players that you can do anything that you put your mind to.”