New Spiker coach eager to spread knowledge

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MENDOTA – Nicci Gibson was all raring to go as the new head coach of the Mendota Spikers’ varsity volleyball team after being named to the position early last year, and then the pandemic hit, shutting down the 2020 volleyball season.

Any chance of salvaging a season was still in limbo until early this year when the Illinois High School Association finally got the go-ahead from the Illinois Department of Public Health to play an abbreviated season. That was in late January. Fast-forward to the middle of March, and Gibson is once again chomping at the bit as the Spikers are conducting pre-season practices to prepare for a 15-match schedule plus a conference tournament. It all kicks off March 18 when the Spikers entertain Rockford Christian.

Gibson is passionate about volleyball as evidenced by her more than 30 years being involved in the sport as a player and a coach. She is a 1991 graduate of Hall High School where she played volleyball and was the first female athlete from Hall to get a Division I scholarship, attending Georgia Southern University. After moving back to Illinois in 2005, she was the head coach at IVCC and an assistant at LaSalle-Peru High School, where she teaches. She returns to volleyball for the first time since 2015, and is eager to pass along her knowledge to the members of the Spiker program.

The Spikers are coming off of a successful 2019 season in which they posted a 21-13-2 record that included only two seniors on the roster. While there are only four seniors among the 13 players on this year’s team, all four bring back a ton of experience, and Gibson is anxious to see them mesh with the nine other squad members.

“I am excited about this team as a whole,” stated Gibson. “They are a great group of young ladies who work hard in practice.

“They have been open to new things that I have brought to the team and program. They have all had to overcome a hard and difficult year mentally and physically with the pandemic. I am so proud of them and can’t wait to see that they can do on the court.”

Heading the list of seniors is Ella Massey, who was a first-team, all-Big Northern selection during the 2019 season. She is entering her fourth year of varsity competition and will jump-start the offense from the setter position.

“Ella is a leader on the court and has an outstanding volleyball IQ,” noted Gibson. “She knows how to run the court and work her offense. She is coachable and has been very open about our new system. I expect great things from her this season.”

Another four-year varsity player is middle blocker Jaelyn Fitzgerald. Rounding out the senior class are libero/defensive specialist Jenna O’Donnell and defensive specialist Madi Mikolasek.

“Jaelyn will be at the net getting the team some big kills and blocks, Jenna will play the role of libero and lead our defense, and Madi will be part of our backrow defense,” said Gibson.

The rest of the roster consists of eight juniors and one freshman, and Gibson is expecting everyone on the team to contribute in one way or another.

“Whether it is on the court or on the sidelines, we are all a team and have the same goals,” added Gibson. “We have a variety of girls that can play numerous positions on the court and that could change day-to-day or game-to-game.”

Gibson has brought the philosophy of having five core “C” values in the program: communication, character, consistency, control and culture. She wants to create positivity on the court, in the huddle, on the bench and with the people they are surrounded by.

“I expect the same thing out of all my players,” she said. “I expect them to work hard during every practice and be great teammates and people in life.”

While this spring volleyball season will be like no other in Illinois high school history (seven-weeks, no IHSA post-season tournament), it doesn’t detract from Gibson’s enthusiasm to get back into the sport she loves.

“I am just excited to coach again,” she said. “This is a great group of girls with lots of talent and they are fun to coach.

“I love what I do, I am passionate about it and ready to see what we can accomplish. I also want to give credit to my assistant coaches and all their help and flexibility through this pandemic.”