Wisconsin Heights sports one of the deepest lineups in Division 3 volleyball, a luxury that bodes well as the top-ranked Vanguards advance through the WIAA postseason.
Coach Amy Schlimgen also takes comfort in knowing that every night she can rely on the one-two-three punch along her front line of seniors Hillary Hughes, Lauren Radix and Kalli Lochner, all of whom will be playing collegiately next fall.
They were teammates on the Wisconsin Select club team (17s) out of Madison, which captured fifth place in its division at the Junior Olympic championships in Dallas this past summer.
So, let's get to know the threesome as they attempt to take the next step and qualify for the state tournament, which they've been denied the past two seasons with losses in the sectional final against defending champion Cuba City.
She, like the other two, may not like doing laundry, but Hughes has a laundry list of accomplishments on and off the court.
Hughes is a four-year starter who will make the first-team all-Capitol North unit for a third straight season after being a second-team choice as a freshman. She earned honorable mention all-state recognition the past two years and was named to the Wisconsin Volleyball Coaches Association all-academic team after both seasons.
Named the league's player of the year and team MVP in 2007, Hughes made the all-area second team. She topped the Vanguards in kills for a second consecutive time this fall. Her versatility and athleticism are evident as she has lettered in track twice, competing in the sprints and high jump and while qualifying for the state meet in the 100 meters last spring.
Hughes made a verbal commitment in mid-June to attend Washburn University, an NCAA Division II school in Topeka, Kan., where the 5-foot-10-inch outside hitter will study athletic training and/or elementary education.
"We visited 12 to 15 colleges, from Indiana to Nebraska," said Hughes, who also received recruiting attention from D-1 schools such as Purdue and Michigan State. "It was a long, hard process. I sent DVDs to a bunch of schools and got a lot of responses, and then I called to get to know some of the coaches and kept narrowing it down. But I wanted to go my own way and wanted to get it done before the school year started so I could focus better."
Hughes said that participating on the Select squad, especially with Lochner and Radix, has benefited her personally and the Vanguards as a team.
"It helped tremendously because we had great coaches, and with only 10 girls in one age group, it meant we had the elite players," Hughes said. "The Madison area has amazing players, and competing with Kalli and Lauren basically year-round, that helps because we're best of friends."
Those relationships and all of the extra court time together have pushed Wisconsin Heights to the top of the D-3 state rankings, and Hughes said the goal is simple.
"Having been in the sectional final the last two years, in front of huge crowds, was like playing at state, and that experience was good for us," said Hughes, whose favorite athlete is two-time Olympic beach volleyball champion Misty May-Treanor. "Losing like that was such a disappointment, but it's made us work that much harder and is a big motivator. I don't think we've peaked yet, but we're starting to get there."
This 6-1 middle blocker said that the team has used those postseason frustrations in a positive way.
"It definitely showed us what we needed to work on, and we sure know what it takes after coming so close those times," Lochner said. "We've gained a huge sense of focus, so all of our eyes are on the same goal. We're working a little harder and communicating more on each and every play. A lot of it is the mental approach."
Lochner said that she rededicated herself—impossible to see in any of these three because of their strong work ethic all along—after making the first-team all-league unit in 2007 while leading the team in service aces, kill percentage, solo blocks and block assists. She was a second-team selection as a sophomore and made the WVCA all-academic list.
Her contributions this season helped Heights dominate most of its foes, losing only to ranked D-2 powers Kettle Moraine Lutheran and Waupun. The Vanguards disposed of two of their biggest rivals, Middleton and Lodi, which are ranked and top seeds in their D-1 and D-2 regionals, respectively.
Lochner is taking those talents to Minnesota-Duluth, another D-2 program, where she plans to work on a business management degree with a minor in marketing. Lochner also received plenty of recruiting attention, with Ball State being one of the leading contenders.
"I had quite a few Division I schools interested, and Ball State was among my top choices from the beginning," said Lochner, who gave her verbal commitment in early August. "I've just tried to keep working and fine-tuning my skills. The main thing is I want to become bigger and stronger. But I'm very satisfied with my choice."
The third amigo hasn't reached that point yet and isn't sure when she'll decide which college she'll be attending. But she knows two things: Academics come first, and playing volleyball is still a major part of the equation.
"My main concern is academics, and I'm exploring as many options as possible," Radix said. "But there's no doubt that I want to play volleyball somewhere because I've always loved it."
It's been obvious for the outside hitter who's taken on a major role as a setter this season, joining senior Taylor Mickelson. Radix was a second-team all-Capitol choice as a freshman and made the first team the past two seasons.
"This year I've tried to be as much of a leader as possible and worked on becoming much more comfortable as a setter," Radix said. "I've done it at the club level, but I wanted to become more familiar with the plays and make them smooth instead of thinking about them. So I've kind of retooled myself and wanted to be a great passer and hitter."
Radix is well on her way to realizing those goals as she and her teammates chase the top prize.
"It's awesome because this year we have two full teams and the deepest bench I've ever seen, so our scrimmages are great because it allows us to simulate game situations," Radix said. "It was so hard to go through those losses the last two years, but I know I'm much stronger mentally because of it. When you go through something like that, you can either let it crush you or you can come back stronger. But we've won some big matches this year that we wouldn't have won without being mentally tough."
It's that kind of attitude and determination that will carry Radix through the recruiting process, regardless of where it takes her.
So far, the schools—mostly D-2 and D-3--that have shown the most interest in Radix include Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri Western State, Washington & Lee (Va.), St. Olaf College (Minn.) and Truman State (Mo.).
Radix will study English or studio art and design and would like to get a minor in German.
"It's tough keeping up and focusing, especially with all of the tournaments, and you want to get applications and everything done," Radix said. "It can get really stressful, but I'm doing OK because I know that I'm looking at academics first and I want to take whatever time is necessary to make the right decision."