Irene Mason’s first exposure to Calli Kenny, ironically, was not in a volleyball setting.
Willowbrook’s volleyball coach was familiar with her future star going back to when Kenny was 8 years old coming to basketball camps at the high school.
Mason knew the type of athlete Kenny, the daughter of former Willowbrook three-sport star Andrea Miller, was. So one can imagine Mason’s excitement when she learned from former college teammates who coached Kenny in the Lions Juniors club that Kenny’s favorite sport had become volleyball.
“Both girls [Calli and her sister Hannah], their favorite sport used to be basketball,” Mason said. “I heard about the switch and any coach would be super excited to get their hands on them and find out what they’re really about. Calli didn’t disappoint.”
She most certainly didn’t.
The two sisters led Willowbrook to its first sectional title in 2021 and followed that up with a 36-win sectional final appearance in Kenny’s junior year.
She saved the best for last this fall.
With Kenny, a Marquette recruit, and her sister, a Louisville commit, leading the way, Willowbrook went 40-2, won its fourth conference championship, third regional title and second sectional championship. Topping it all off, the Warriors advanced to the state tournament for the first time in program history, finishing third in Class 4A.
It was a banner achievement for the program, school and Willowbrook community that was not lost on Kenny. Rewarding their support meant the world.
“I think it was even more special just because of how, coming in freshman year, the reputation that Willowbrook volleyball had,” Kenny said. “Starting from that year with coach Mason, who always believed in me and especially our team, coming up short the last few years but being super successful, I knew we could take the next step. It being our senior year, the community coming together and our parents after a couple playoff games, we thought, oh, my gosh, we have to do it for our parents. We knew how much it would mean for our coaches, parents, the community. Everybody being a part of it made it more fun.”
Kenny had 318 kills, 104 aces, 399 assists and 234 digs her senior year running a 6-2 as a setter/right-side hitter. She holds the school record for kills in a single season (321), aces in a single season (104), kills in a career (1,003) and aces in a career (262) and reached the 1,000 career kill milestone in her final match of the season. She had 17 kills and 15 assists in her final match, a three-set win over Barrington in the Class 4A third-place match.
Those statistics and the history Kenny made at Willowbrook make her the choice as the 2023 Suburban Life Girls Volleyball Player of the Year.
Kenny made it her mission for this Willowbrook team to be the “GOAT” or greatest of all time at the school. She threw that statement out there after an early season match at Lyons Township, a match in which Kenny had a stunning 12 kills in the third set to lead the Warriors past the Lions for the first time ever. Not even a three-set sectional final with Oak Park-River Forest, which handed Willowbrook its lone regular-season loss, would get in Kenny’s way.
“When she wants something and puts her mind to it, if there is a will to do it, it will get done,” Mason said. “I remember using it as motivation before the Lyons match, telling her specifically we had never beaten them. She looked at me and nodded. That is the kind of player she is. She loves those big moments more where she has something to prove.”
Kenny is proof that success on the volleyball court goes beyond the measurables of height or size.
She stands 5-foot-9, relatively short for a future Division I setter and a right-side hitter. But her explosive athletic ability and drive more than make up for what Kenny may lack in inches.
“Her athleticism and her strength really help set her apart,” Mason said. “When you see her in person and realize she’s 5-foot-9, when she’s out on the court and doing things she’s doing, she makes it seamless against hitters and blockers 6-foot plus night after night. It doesn’t faze her. Calli is the old expression, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. She really brings it. Her athleticism and ball control and skill set is so high, she doesn’t miss a beat.”
Kenny was one of Willowbrook’s better basketball players in two years playing the sport in high school and also could play softball. But volleyball stuck.
Kenny provided a glimpse of what was to come during the spring 2020 COVID season that was limited to 12 matches. Sophomore year, her skill set allowed Kenny to play out of position at outside hitter and lead Willowbrook in kills and multiple statistical categories.
As a junior, she returned to her comfort zone at setter and right-side hitter.
“She is the full package is what she is, wherever she is on the court,” Mason said. “If she’s in the back row, she can be a passer that other teams will avoid serving to. Serving, don’t want to take away from that, I think she had 104 aces this season And she gets touches when she is blocking. She is the total package. Marquette knows that and sees that.”
Kenny looks forward to the challenge at the next level. She’ll be playing club until the end of April and from there do individual training before leaving for Marquette in July.
She leaves behind little regret from her last season at Willowbrook.
“Every other year I cried after our last game. Besides happy tears, I had nothing to be sad about this season,” Kenny said. “It was such a good way to go out. It was so awesome to get the community and school together like that. I had teachers come up to me and tell me thanks for bringing school spirit back to Willowbrook.”