JOLIET – Growing up, Mary Murphy watched her sisters playing volleyball. She would run to the ball cart before her sisters’ high school matches started, grab a volleyball and – during timeouts and in between games – she would play with her mother on the sidelines.
Simply put, volleyball has always been a dominant part of Murphy’s life.
“When I was little, I always just wanted to play and be like my sisters,” Murphy said. “I loved have a volleyball in my hand; I loved being able to do something with it. I always thought about volleyball and how I couldn’t wait to play it. When I started playing, I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I dedicated all of my time to it.”
It was time well spent. In her senior year, Murphy helped Joliet Catholic overcome a slow start and finish second overall in Class 3A.
In the state semifinal against rival Montini, Murphy tallied 17 kills in the three-game match; and in the two-game regional final against the school’s biggest rival, Providence, Murphy led the Angels with 11 kills.
Those are impressive numbers for an outside hitter, but what makes Murphy special is that she is a double-threat setter and right-side hitter. In addition to Murphy’s team- and season-high kills in the regional final, Murphy tallied 17 assists.
The Western Michigan-bound setter totaled 368 assists, 327 kills, 115 digs, 47 aces and 34 blocks for the season. Her well-rounded play is what makes her the 2014 Herald-News Player of the Year.
“Her versatility is part of it [her success]. She is able to set. She is able to hit,” JCA coach Christine Scheibe said. “She blocks fairly well and can pass and play defense. She’s a well-rounded athlete and volleyball player.”
En route to the state finals, the Angels were able to overcome their opponents because of the balanced attack Murphy provided. Most volleyball teams are strongest on the outsides and rely on that position to get them through games. In tough situations, JCA counted on the 5-foot-10 senior.
When Murphy was in the back row, she would set the ball to the player who had the best chance to get the point. Once Murphy made it to the front row, however, she demanded the ball in critical moments and earned the kills herself.
Another huge part that led to Murphy’s success this year was her leadership. The Angels, who finished 25-17, started the season 9-12 and struggled even in practice. Scheibe said Murphy rallied the Angels by inspiring them with her words and by what she did on the court.
“At the beginning of the season, the starting side would lose to the non-starting side a lot, and we couldn’t pinpoint why,” Murphy said. “Obviously, I do not like to lose, especially when the starting side – who is always supposed to win – loses.
“One practice, I took the team over and I told them, ‘This will be the last practice that we ever lose to the non-starting side. The starting side is never supposed to lose. This is the last one,’ and after that, we would beat them by a considerable amount.”
Murphy said the threat of not making the trip the Normal motivated the team, especially her. Both of her sisters played volleyball at Joliet Catholic and made it to the state tournament. Jennifer was on teams that won two state titles (2008, 2009); and Kelly, who currently plays on the U.S. women’s national team, was on teams that earned third- (2006) and fourth- (2005) place trophies.
“My entire family is really competitive,” Murphy said. “Kelly is one of the most competitive people that I know, so I follow her in that aspect. We always try to kind of outdo each other, but we’re still proud of each others’ accomplishments. My sisters and my mom, who was my first coach, were big influences for me. Volleyball has always been a huge part of my family. I grew up with volleyball. I didn’t want to be the only Murphy who didn’t go to state.”
When she stepped onto Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena court – a setting she dreamed of playing on ever since she was 4 – Murphy did what she did all season: She led the team and played her heart out.
“I felt like I was just playing and that I did whatever I needed so we could win,” Murphy said. “If my team needed me to get a kill, I did whatever I could to get that kill. If they needed a good set, then I did whatever I needed to. I took it play by play, and I never really felt the pressure. I just played.”
“Just playing” so well was not always easy for Murphy, however. Despite playing for years, she struggled and competed on lower club teams, but things clicked for her when she made Sports Performance Volleyball Club’s 16-2 team.
“I had a coach [Amanda Nelson] that really impacted me,” Murphy said. “She made me work hard and made me want to work hard and get better. She was one of the coaches who would not let you off on anything. I’ve always been competitive, but 16’s year is where it became different. I changed as a person, definitely for the better when it comes to volleyball.”
So how does it feel to be named Herald-News’ All-Area Volleyball Player?
“It feels amazing. I was surprised when I first heard. It’s an amazing honor. To think about where I was in the past, being on the fourth and fifth teams when I was younger, and now that I’m the All-Area Player of the Year ... ,” Murphy paused and smiled.
“It’s absolutely amazing, I don’t know how to describe it. I want to continue playing for as long as I can, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me.”