Olivia Van Zelst elevates to near the flight of a volleyball above a net. The volleyball is floating. If volleyballs were capable of wincing, this one would wince. Hard. Van Zelst, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter and Loyola Academy senior, swings at the defenseless ball. The ball hurtles south in a hurry, avoiding brave blockers on the other side of the net and bruising a spot on the hardwood, also defenseless.
Volleyball music, violent and resounding, produced by a baton-less conductor from Glenview. Brava, Miss Van Zelst.
“The velocity Olivia puts on the ball … it’s hard to come by,” Ramblers coach Mark Chang says.
LA, fourth in the Class 4A state tournament last fall, raced out to a 7-1 start this season. Much of the early success can be attributed to Van Zelst’s fearlessness and front-row power. Van Zelst, a Wildcat Juniors Volleyball Club player for five years, ranked second among teammates in kills last year to current senior outside hitter Christina Reed, a 6-2 Rambler, the tallest Rambler. Van Zelst struck a combined eight kills, to go with her 12 digs, in LA’s two state matches at Redbird Arena in Normal last November.
“Olivia is a fantastic player, and she’s one of my best friends,” LA senior middle Kate Pillion, also from Glenview, says. “We work out together, practice together on our team’s off days. She’s such a great teammate. She gets as excited about one of her kills as she gets about a kill from one of her teammates.”
Van Zelst, an Our Lady of Perpetual Help School graduate, made a decision not too long ago. It was a big one. It excited her entire family. She verbally committed to play volleyball at Purdue University, after having received offers from several other Division I schools. Her parents, Dave and Cindy, started their courtship on the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her sisters, Christina (a Glenbrook South High School graduate) and Danielle (a Loyola Academy graduate), are Purdue students. Her little brother, three-sport athlete Nate (football basketball, baseball), should garner the attention of Purdue football coaches any day now. Nate Van Zelst has kicked a 45-yard field goal.
It’s (Boiler) up … it’s good!
Nate Van Zelst is … 12 years old.
“I love the coaches at Purdue, and it’s a hard-working team,” Olivia says. (Olivia turned 17 on Aug. 31. A Purdue assistant volleyball coach called Van Zelst on that date to wish her a happy birthday.) “I was in fourth grade when I first saw my sisters play volleyball. I could relate well to Danielle, an outside hitter (Christina served Titans teams as a setter).”
Purdue volleyball coaches won’t have to worry about Van Zelst’s work ethic. It’s a lot like her volleyball game: sturdy, steady, admirable. Chang singles it out, lauds it. Loud kills in matches are nice, but it takes hours and hours of diligence in practices — year after year, at the prep and club levels — to nail down the timing of an ideal attack. Set goes up. Van Zelst goes up. Van Zelst hammers ball. Ball damages floor. Sounds of another post-kill celebration overwhelm echo of another kill.
“Her work ethic has enabled her to play at a high level,” Chang says. “It also motivates her teammates to focus on their work ethic. Olivia means a lot to our team, a whole lot, and she’s one of our most important sources of energy and one of the reasons for our success.
“She’s quiet, yet she’s a big-time player for us,” he adds. “Big-time.”
Van Zelst helped LA’s Ramblers finish runner-up to the host school at the New Trier High School Tournament Sept. 4-5. Chang’s crew went 3-0 in pool play on Sept. 4, defeating Huntley, Niles North and Waukegan high schools in straight sets. None of the opponents got closer than 25-17 in any of the six sets. Loyola then downed Glenbrook South 25-11, 25-10 in a first-place bracket semifinal on Sept. 5, before absorbing its first loss of the season. NT’s Trevians (5-2) defeated LA 25-22, 25-19 in the title match.
“Her competitiveness … it’s the first thing I think of when I think of Olivia,” Chang says. “She’s plays with intensity, with authority.”
She surfs, too. Van Zelst, along with her family members, has taken on waves during several watery outings. Hawaii was one of her bases. She gets on a board, battles. Do waves wince? She loved every second of each outing, a Surf’s up! fan capable of putting down kill after kill after kill against dry volleyball players. Her favorite ocean?
“Any ocean,” she says.
Nothing daunts Olivia Van Zelst.
Notable: Loyola’s pool-play scores on the first day of last weekend’s New Trier Tournament: vs. Huntley, 25-16, 25-14; vs. Niles North, 25-14, 25-17; vs. Waukegan, 25-12, 25-6. … Olivia Van Zelst pounded a team-high eight kills, and senior libero/defensive specialist Lauren Stadler paced the Ramblers in digs (15) in a 25-13, 25-20 defeat of Prospect High School on Aug. 27. “Outstanding,” Chang noted after his squad’s second match of 2015. … LA opened the season with a 23-13, 23-13 defeat of Highland Park High School on Aug. 25, getting eight kills and an ace from senior right side hitter Melanie Fyda. … Fyda provided seven kills and three aces in Loyola’s 25-12, 25-23 win over Glenbrook South on Aug. 31. Senior setter Katie Randolph dished 18 assists. … Randolph and senior outside hitters Christina Reed and Grace Kennedy are serving as tri-captains this fall. … Loyola Academy’s fourth-place finish at state last year was the best in program history. LA finished with a record of 27-11. A Ramblers girls volleyball team had not captured a sectional championship before 2014. Reed amassed 10 kills, 13 digs and 11 service points in a 21-25, 25-22, 25-11 state semifinal loss to Libertyville High School (35-6). … LA’s girls volleyball team attended a Purdue University team camp in the summer and went undefeated at a summer league tournament held at Energy Volleyball Club in Niles.