New Trier setter Niko Gjaja could have let school administrators figure out his volleyball coach’s number of career wins in the middle of the season last spring.
He chose not to do so.
Gjaja — a junior and first-year varsity member at the time — knew Trevians boys volleyball coach Sue Ellen Haak was nearing a milestone (400 career victories) in 2016.
“I was looking at a state program, and I was pretty sure her win total was one win off,” Gjaja recalls. “But I wanted to make sure, and I wanted to do what I could to make sure our team was prepared to celebrate with her on the night of her 400th win.
“I talked to our captains [2016 graduates Peter Hindsley and Henry Lindstrom] first, and then I met with our assistant athletic director. To me, it was a big deal; Coach Haak has done so much for our program.”
Gjaja and others did a little research, made some phone calls, added some numbers up and then looked at the Trevians’ schedule. A New Trier win against Niles West would swell Haak’s win total to an even 400. Gjaja — with help from his mother, Kate — ordered a huge cake from a Costco for the potential commemoration.
Trevs devoured cake.
Give Gjaja — the starting setter on NT’s state runner-up squad (36-6) last season — credit for yet another assist.
“Niko,” Haak says, “is a caring guy and one of the top young men at our school, as well as one of the most coachable players I’ve ever coached. The character traits he has, his leadership skills … they’re all great ones. There’s nothing fake about him; he’s as sincere as they come.
“And here’s something else I like about him: Niko never hesitates to laugh at himself.”
Gjaja was a sixth-grader at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette when a PE teacher mentioned the volleyball program at Gjaja’s next school, Wilmette Junior High. The teacher thought Gjaja and volleyball would be a good match.
Later, at the dinner table at home, Gjaja shared some news with his parents [Marin and Kate].
“I told them, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of trying out for volleyball as a seventh-grader, ’ ” Gjaja says. “My dad’s eyes lit up.”
Marin Gjaja had been an alternate on the USA Olympic men’s volleyball team in 1992, but he had never pressured Niko to play volleyball. The news from his son was a green light — for Marin to teach volleyball to Niko.
Marin set up shop in his back yard. Niko’s siblings — sister Alex, now a sophomore rower at New Trier, and brother Stefan, now a budding seventh-grade volleyball player — joined their big brother for the convenient volleyball drills.
“I will always be thankful for the time my dad spent with me in our back yard,” Gjaja says of Marin, a volunteer assistant coach under Kyle Masterson at Vernon Hills-based Adversity, a volleyball club where Niko continues to hone his skills. “He has so much volleyball knowledge, and he had an answer for all of my questions.”
New Trier’s 2017 boys volleyball team faced five tests at last weekend’s 24-team Warren Invitational in Gurnee. It passed them all with flying … ceiling scrapers. Haak’s roster includes eight players who are 6-foot-4 or taller.
‘I’m one of the shorter guys,” says the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Gjaja, who was named to the all-tournament team — along with NT’s 6-8 senior outside hitter, Billy Fauntleroy — after finishing with 113 assists, 13 kills and five blocks at the invite April 7-8. “Teams do a double-take when they see us walk into a gym. It might be a little intimidating.”
NT’s tightest match last weekend was its first, a 19-25, 25-17, 16-14 defeat of Zion-Benton in pool play on April 7. Gjaja exuded positivity throughout, encouraging and pumping up his teammates in between his steady jump sets and left-handed kills. Early in the second set of NT’s pool-play match with Lakes — a 25-12, 25-16 rout — Gjaja faked a set before blasting a clean kill on April 7.
NT would win 18 of the next 26 points.
On Day 2 of the tourney, New Trier downed Maine South, Deerfield and Riverside-Brookfield in succession — and in straight sets.
NT (7-1) solved R-B 25-19, 25-21 for the title.
“He gets there; he’s a fast-paced player,” NT junior outside hitter Brian Kaiser says of Gjaja’s setting style. “And he doesn’t try to do anything crafty. We trust him. He doesn’t just fire us up when we need that; Niko also stays calm. Earlier this season he told us, during a match, ‘Take a deep breath,’ which is what we needed to hear.”
It was the kind of message Gjaja had heard from seniors last spring. NT found itself down a set in a sectional semifinal to host Evanston. The gym was steamy on that day.
NT’s sweat-soaked seniors?
“Poised,” recalls Gjaja, whose jump-float serve is as annoying to a receiver as a knuckleball is to a fastball-loving slugger. “Being around them, playing volleyball with them, was a great opportunity for me to learn. Our run to the state playoffs was not an easy one. Right after we lost that first set to Evanston, our seniors said to us, ‘Hey, we’re fine. Relax. Let’s reset.’
“I then looked at the rest of my teammates and didn’t notice one look of panic.”
NT ended up advancing to a sectional final with a 18-25, 25-21, 25-20 win.
Haak knew what to expect from Gjaja years before Gjaja lofted his first set in a varsity match.
“One of our coaches watched Niko play in a match at Wilmette Junior High,” Haak says. “What the coach recognized immediately was Niko’s leadership. Niko took charge, telling his teammates where they needed to be on the court and doing other things good setters do.
“If Niko ever plays poorly now,” the coach adds, “it would be my fault because he does whatever we ask him to do.”
Gjaja will play college volleyball at Princeton University — where his back-yard/in-house coach played before catching the attention of USA volleyball coaches.
Medicine is a possible field of study for him.
“Maybe something along the lines of research,” Gjaja says. “I’m super analytical, and I like to ask a lot of questions. I must have asked 400 questions one day in my anatomy class. I must have been really annoying on that day.”
But answers to good questions often lead to the conclusion of a project.
Recall Haak’s milestone win.
Recall the icing-caked faces of Haak’s players after the win.
“We’re now trying to figure out how many years my assistant coach [Dick Dreis] has been coaching,” Haak says. “He won’t tell us.”
Get the feeling Gjaja will be on the case, if he isn’t already?
Notable: New Trier senior outside hitter Billy Fauntleroy totaled a combined 39 kills, four blocks and three aces en route to earning all-tournament honors at the Warren Invite last weekend. Other significant efforts from Trevians: Kieran Hutchison (25 kills, three blocks); Brian Kaiser (17 kills, 10 blocks); Joe D’Attomo (15 kills, six blocks); Will Wolf (13 kills, five blocks); and Jack Werd (12 kills, eight blocks).