Girls Volleyball: New outside hitter Tiffany Clark gives Benet knockout punch

Benet's Tiffany Clark digs a Crystal Lake South serve in the Class 4A state semifinals in Normal last November.  | Mike Mantucca / For Sun-Times Media
Benet's Tiffany Clark digs a Crystal Lake South serve in the Class 4A state semifinals in Normal last November. | Mike Mantucca / For Sun-Times Media
Benet Last year: 36-6, lost to Mother McAuley in 4A state final. Outlook: Benet has taken home a state trophy in four of the last six years, and with six starters back, the bar is still set high. Northwestern recruit Rachael Fara is one of the state’s top middles, Penn State-bound Natalie Canulli an elite libero and Michigan recruit Tiffany Clark moves outside. Sophomore Sara Neilson will compete for the open setter position. Metea Valley Last year: 20-10, lost to Plainfield North in regional final Outlook: The Mustangs look to build on the program’s first outright conference title with several pieces back. Fourth-year varsity starter Lexi Lobdell returns outside, and also back are middles Alyssa Jepson and Ashley Walker and libero Autumn Long. Naperville Central Last year: 18-18, lost to Lockport in regional semifinal. Outlook: Experience should go a long way for the Redhawks, who return eight girls off of a young 2013 team. Senior Phoebe Havenaar is a third-year varsity player in the middle. Junior Andi Davenport returns at setter, junior Sam Harron is back at outside and senior Leanna White at libero. Naperville North Last year: 34-5, lost to Benet in sectional final Outlook: The defending DuPage Valley Conference champions welcome back a strong nucleus to build on their best finish in a decade. Emily Kwak is a four-year varsity setter and Buffalo recruit Megan Wernette is in her third year starting at middle. Caitlin Miller and Jenna LaCorte are other senior returners. Neuqua Valley Last year’s record: 19-16, lost to Plainfield Central in regional semifinal. Outlook: Senior Abby Skryd, who will play the dual role of hitting and setting after starting at outside last year, headlines a group of five returners. Also back are senior setters Emily Krachenfels and Kaelan Haag, junior middle Anne Botos and junior outside Claire Grove. Waubonsie Valley Last year’s record: 30-8, lost to Benet in sectional semifinal. Outlook: Life post-Rachel Minarick begins. The 2013 Naperville Sun Player of the Year is now at Michigan State. Good news, though — practically everyone else is back off a team that set a program record for wins, including senior outside Becky Breuer, junior middle Caroline Cordes, junior outside Lauren Howard, junior outside Brooke Burling and senior setter Lauren Hiller.

When Brad Baker showed his Benet volleyball team the movie “Rocky” before the state tournament last year, he meant it purely as short-term motivation.

Tiffany Clark took it a step further.

The Benet junior adopted boxing as a hobby. She set up a boxing set in her basement and started classes twice a week. She gave lessons to her friends when they came over for her birthday.

“I didn’t know that,” Baker said, asked about Clark’s boxing, “but it doesn’t surprise me.”

Clark, you see, is cut from a different cloth. Baker calls her the most competitive kid he’s coached. He’s had to threaten to dole out team punishments if Clark didn’t heed his message to take a Sunday off.

Baker himself was nearly at the business end of Clark’s all-out effort at state. Tracking down a ball, Clark almost knocked her coach over.

“All I remember is I was going to get a ball and he was really close to me. Apparently I almost took out his knee,” Clark said, adding “Kind of in the moment there.”

Necessity will line up Clark on the outside for Benet this fall, but that desire is what makes her one of the better liberos in the nation. The Michigan recruit won a national championship in 2013 for the Sports Performance 15 Elite.

In a Benet program that has churned out multiple Division I liberos, Clark may be the best of the vintage. Clark’s 275 digs as a sophomore were 10th-most in program history — and she was the only girl on the list to do so without playing libero six rotations.

“The truly great liberos are the ones not afraid to get dirty and bloody and completely go at it,” Baker said. “That’s her personality in a nutshell.”

Clark’s competitive flame is rooted in her family tree.

Her grandfather Joe Kopnisky, a member of the Western Pennsylvania Football Hall of Fame, coached at Slippery Rock and played for West Virginia. Tiffany’s mom Jill played basketball at Missouri. Her daredevil dad Tim raced motorcycles professionally.

Older sister Amanda played soccer at Neuqua Valley and later Notre Dame and brother Chris played soccer at Neuqua and Santa Clara, the two combining to win five national championships.

Every Clark championship medal is framed and hung up on a wall in the basement.

“The expectations are obviously pretty high,” Clark said. “You can tell how competitive we are on family game nights.”

Similar expectations are the norm now at Benet, where the volleyball team has taken home a state trophy four of the last six years.

Clark is an important part of keeping that run going. Baker is happy to report she’s settled right in at a position she hasn’t played in a couple years.

“We knew she’d be playing defense and serve-receive but she hadn’t hit for so long,” he said. “It will be hard to tell that she hasn’t hit. People won’t say she’s a libero.”

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Benet Last year: 36-6, lost to Mother McAuley in 4A state final. Outlook: Benet has taken home a state trophy in four of the last six years, and with six starters back, the bar is still set high. Northwestern recruit Rachael Fara is one of the state’s top middles, Penn State-bound Natalie Canulli an elite libero and Michigan recruit Tiffany Clark moves outside. Sophomore Sara Neilson will compete for the open setter position. Metea Valley Last year: 20-10, lost to Plainfield North in regional final Outlook: The Mustangs look to build on the program’s first outright conference title with several pieces back. Fourth-year varsity starter Lexi Lobdell returns outside, and also back are middles Alyssa Jepson and Ashley Walker and libero Autumn Long. Naperville Central Last year: 18-18, lost to Lockport in regional semifinal. Outlook: Experience should go a long way for the Redhawks, who return eight girls off of a young 2013 team. Senior Phoebe Havenaar is a third-year varsity player in the middle. Junior Andi Davenport returns at setter, junior Sam Harron is back at outside and senior Leanna White at libero. Naperville North Last year: 34-5, lost to Benet in sectional final Outlook: The defending DuPage Valley Conference champions welcome back a strong nucleus to build on their best finish in a decade. Emily Kwak is a four-year varsity setter and Buffalo recruit Megan Wernette is in her third year starting at middle. Caitlin Miller and Jenna LaCorte are other senior returners. Neuqua Valley Last year’s record: 19-16, lost to Plainfield Central in regional semifinal. Outlook: Senior Abby Skryd, who will play the dual role of hitting and setting after starting at outside last year, headlines a group of five returners. Also back are senior setters Emily Krachenfels and Kaelan Haag, junior middle Anne Botos and junior outside Claire Grove. Waubonsie Valley Last year’s record: 30-8, lost to Benet in sectional semifinal. Outlook: Life post-Rachel Minarick begins. The 2013 Naperville Sun Player of the Year is now at Michigan State. Good news, though — practically everyone else is back off a team that set a program record for wins, including senior outside Becky Breuer, junior middle Caroline Cordes, junior outside Lauren Howard, junior outside Brooke Burling and senior setter Lauren Hiller.

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