Crystal Lake South’s volleyball team showed it was on the rise during the COVID-19-shortened spring season, placing runner-up to crosstown rival and juggernaut Crystal Lake Central in the Fox Valley Conference Tournament.
The Gators returned all but one starter from that team and took it to another level in the fall.
South won its first 14 matches and was a win short of a perfect season in the FVC, winning its first conference championship since 2014. The Gators’ standout season continued into the playoffs, where they earned their first regional title since 2015 with a three-set, come-from-behind win over Woodstock North in the Class 3A Boylan Regional final.
South’s season ended the next week with a two-set loss to No. 1-seeded Kaneland in the sectional semifinals. Still, the Gators finished with an area-best 31-6 record, the team’s best mark since going 32-8 in 2014 during Jorie Fontana’s seventh season as head coach.
Fontana was honored before a match this season with past coaches and family members at Gator Alley after getting career win No. 300 and now is 313-180 (.635 winning percentage) in 14 years at South.
For leading the Gators to a breakthrough season, Fontana was chosen as the 2021 Fall Northwest Herald Volleyball Coach of the Year by the sports staff with input from area coaches. Fontana is the Gators’ first Volleyball Coach of the Year since Pete Kottra won in 1995 and 1996.
Huntley’s Karen Naymola and Jacobs’ Mike Depa also were considered for the award.
Fontana recently talked to sports writer Alex Kantecki about her proudest moments from the season, her coaching influences, her love of ‘80s movies and more.
What were you most proud about this season?
Fontana: Winning for us this season never looked the same just because of the makeup of the team and ability to push around the ball and highlight different athletes in different situations. Definitely my proudest moment is everybody got a chance and everybody was involved.
Do you have any rituals or superstitions on game day?
Fontana: Certain seasons I did. This season, since I was working at Cary-Grove, there were a lot more last-minute preparations for things. I will say that I always used the same pen and when I turned my lineup sheet in. I always kind of had the same things circled, and I did notice that I was doing that subconsciously, so I guess that would be one.
What are your three favorite movies?
Fontana: You got me on a tough one because I’m kind of a movie buff. I would say “One Crazy Summer,” with John Cusack. I’m kind of obsessed with that one since I was a kid. I guess I’m a product of the ‘80s, so I would say “Overboard” with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. And I also love horror movies, so one that I enjoy to come back to is “Joy Ride” with Steve Zahn and Paul Walker.
Which one of your players do you find really inspiring?
Fontana: What I love about Crystal Lake South is that we do have a mix of girls that aren’t always club players playing all the time, but they’re holding their own and they really buy into what Crystal Lake South volleyball is all about. Players like Ashley Ciezadlo and Megan Langdon, who just worked their butts off. I’m super moved by them and the energy they put in. They show that you can be doing this year round or you can be doing this just this season and still have a major impact.
What got you interested in coaching?
Fontana: When I stopped playing in college, it was a really jarring experience of, ‘What do I do now?’ I started playing in middle school and all of a sudden you’re done with your last college match. You’re sitting there in the locker room, and I remember you’re kind of just at a loss of what’s going to fill the void. Fortunately, that spring, [Woodstock North coach] Eric Schulze – he was at Club Fusion at the time and an old coach of mine – he said, ‘I don’t know if you have any extra time but do you want to take on a team for us?’ That year I coached a really young team and I haven’t stopped coaching since.
Who made the biggest impression on you as a coach?
Fontana: I would say my college coaches were very incredible. At the college level I had Liz Tortorello-Nelson and Ray Gooden, who is now the head coach at NIU. They involved us in the process so well and had us understand the sport so well. You realize that you’re a completely different player and understand the game at a completely different level. They made it fun. They made it so much about having enjoyment in it and a family in it.
How has your coaching style changed over the years?
Fontana: I used to be very black and white in terms of it’s this way or it’s not. The more you coach, and of course once I had my own children, you realize that every one is different, every player is going to come to you with different strengths and weaknesses, and they’e going to develop them differently. I think my patience has grown and my ability to adapt to the group that I have.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
Fontana: I can do a really good Mickey Mouse voice.
If you could have dinner with three people from any time in history, who would they be?
Fontana: Elvis Presley, my grandpa for sure and [United States women’s national volleyball coach] Karch Kiraly.
What is your most prized possession?
Fontana: My family, of course. Your family sees the best and worst of you. My husband has been invaluable. He does a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, even though he is still coaching a season and dealing with all of his stuff. My kids, as they get older, when you walk in the door, asking, ‘Did you win. Did you lose?’ And they’re either excited with you or upset. The [career win No. 300] match that [South athletic director Jason Bott] put on was awesome with all the former coaches there. My whole family was there, my parents and siblings. That brought more emotion because I hadn’t seen a showing like that since I was in college.
Which player on your team made you laugh the most?
Fontana: That’s hard. There are lots of good ones. I would say [sophomore] Gabby Wire. She just has a really good personality and she takes things well being new. You’re just trying to get them into the system and what you do, and her responses and her ways of communicating makes me laugh.
What will you remember most about this year’s team and seniors?
Fontana: Just that ability to adjust and adapt. I think these seniors kind of prove that they’re actually stronger and more capable at adapting than anybody thought possible. They’re ability to just be appreciative, that things can be taken away, and really enjoying the opportunities and taking advantage of the opportunities that you have. They still found ways to improve during all of that and become a better person. It just shows you how tough and amazing kids are today because I think sometimes they get a bad rap when we say the opposite.