Rock Falls volleyball has been a family affair

Several current Rockets celebrating run to state tournament with older sisters who played

Keeping it in the family. Many players on this year’s Rock Falls volleyball team have sisters who have played for coach Pillars. Claire Bickett (left), Denali Stonitsch, Elizabeth Lombardo, Ari Reyna, Taylor Reyna, Sophia Moeller, Kacie Witherow and Sophie Chavira.

When you’ve been at one program for 26 years, you’re bound to coach members of the same family. For Rock Falls volleyball coach Sheila Pillars, the family ties run deep.

This year’s team has six players who had older sisters come through the program, and two more players – Taylor and Ari Reyna – who are playing together.

And that group has earned some bragging rights over their older siblings: these Rockets have secured the first state finals berth for Rock Falls volleyball since the early days of the tournament in 1974 and ‘75.

“It feels special. Watching my sisters go through the program before me, I’ve always wanted to be on the court and playing on varsity. And now that I have the chance – and an opportunity to play at state – it’s fun,” junior Kacie Witherow said. “So many families have gone through here and played for Sheila, and it’s so nice to see everyone succeed with Sheila, and being able to reflect back and think, ‘Oh, my sisters had the same experience.’ It’s just a nice bond.”

It’s one that Pillars feels even more deeply, because she not only shares the memories that this team is making, but also remembers the good times with the teams that their older sisters were a part of.

“That’s just part of building the program. You want those older siblings to come back and say, ‘This was so much fun, I have so many great memories here,’ and it’s not even so much about the volleyball as it is about what happens off the court and the friendships and those relationships that you built. It’s 100% a family,” Pillars said. “To be able to coach siblings and siblings of siblings, it’s just that much more fun because now they’re all coming back and my memories start flooding back. I love it.”

Sister act

The Reyna sisters man the middle of the front row for the Rockets. As close-knit as Taylor and the senior class is, having her younger sister on the team adds an extra layer of fun.

“It’s actually really cool, because I never expected to be playing any high school sports with my sister, so I feel like having that is just a ‘whole family’ thing. Whenever my grandparents want to come, they’re cheering for both of us instead of just one of us. It’s just nice having everyone together,” Taylor said. “The experience itself is just amazing. I feel like we’re both in it together, and it’s funny to go around and say, ‘Hey, the Reyna sisters are the middles.’ Whenever people say anything, it’s always, ‘Oh, you and your sister are playing the same position,’ and I just say, ‘Yeah, but I’m better.’ It’s a little joke. It is exciting, and I like making it fun. I feel like the chemistry we have on the court is just easygoing and fun.”

Taylor takes pride in setting a good example for Ari, and the sophomore is thrilled to get the chance to play with her older sister – and help Pillars finally get to state for the first time.

“It’s really nice to be a part of this team, because I’ve known these girls for so long. But it’s really nice knowing them, because they’ve been helping me so much from being on varsity pretty much since they were freshmen,” Ari said. “It’s really nice knowing that Sheila’s going out with a bang because of our team. Just to experience it, just being here is just so fun. Just being here knowing that next year she won’t be, but I was there to help her make it to her one goal for our team, I don’t even know how to explain it.”

All in the family

There’s another duo this season that has enjoyed this run together. Senior Claire Bickett watched her older sister, Bailey, play for the Rockets, and has been around the Rock Falls program even longer than that: her mom, Jolene, is Pillars’ varsity assistant, and has been a coach with the Rockets for two decades.

“It’s kind of weird, but it’s really special to have her on the bench,” Claire said. “Sometimes I get angry when I hear her yell at me or tell me what shots to hit; honestly, I think that fires me up more and I just hit the ball harder. Then it’s kind of nice after the games because she’s pretty supportive as a mom and after being a coach during the match.

“I remember watching Sheila’s daughter Morgan Mammosser play when my mom was on the coaching staff. Morgan actually taught me my hitting approach, so she would babysit me and teach me that.”

While Jolene is coaching her second daughter to come through the program, the fact that she’s known this senior group as Claire’s friends since they were in elementary school has helped her make memories that she’ll treasure for the rest of her life.

“I coached them, and with Claire here, I’ve known them all so long. Watching Claire develop and just being a part of it – watching her at practice, watching her at games – sometimes I don’t get to have that vision of just my kid because I’m trying to watch the whole team, so it’s good and bad,” Jolene said. “But this is just a special group, and they have such a great connection – and we all know to be successful, you have to have those connections. But to watch the girls, Claire especially, and then being kind of a mom here for these girls, it’s just all come full circle. It’s just so special; it’s a great way to end, but I don’t want it to end.”

Bailey is enjoying this tournament run as well, making the trek from her home in Iowa City to watch each postseason match.

“Definitely 100% bragging rights for me,” Claire said with a laugh. “But my sister, she’s supported us the whole way and ever since our regionals in the postseason, and it’s just super special that I can be the one to go to state and Bailey can cheer me on.

“But it’s not only us. I think this team is 100% like family, and we just have so much love for each other. We play for the girls next to us more than ourselves, so that makes it so special.”

Following in their footsteps

Senior setter Denali Stonitsch knows what that feels like for the Bicketts and the Reyna sisters, because her freshman and sophomore seasons she played with her older sister Cadence. In 2021, sophomore Denali and senior Cadence were the setters who helped lead the Rockets to the Elite 8; now, Denali and Rock Falls are playing at state this weekend, and Cadence and the Sauk Valley Skyhawks are playing at the NJCAA National Tournament next weekend.

Denali is thrilled to be on the team that finally made it over the hump to Normal.

“It feels nice, and it’s just honestly unbelievable and lucky being the first – just because we had a really great team sophomore year with my sister and Maya Sands and all of them. We were really good that year, but this year, we made it to state, and it’s pretty great,” Denali said. “My sister’s happy for us, and I’m happy for her going to nationals. We’ve done really well with Sheila, and our progress over the years had been very noticeable, so it’s a very good feeling to know we’ve done this in our last year, and in Sheila’s last year.”

The fact that Pillars nearly retired after last season before ultimately deciding to come back for one more – and the end result is her first state tournament berth – isn’t lost on her players.

“Sheila coming back from one more year, it was kind of almost like fate that it was meant to happen with this group in Sheila’s last year. It just feels incredible,” said senior Sophie Chavira, who watched older sisters Emalie and Kelsi play for the Rockets. “I feel like because we made it farther than I saw my sisters go, it’s kind of more special because it’s like we accomplished what we wanted to since the beginning. Watching my sisters play when I was little, that makes it more special for me because it’s us doing it. It very much feels like I have bragging rights.”

“It’s so nice to do this for us and for her,” added Witherow, whose older sisters Katie and Kylie went through the program. “Thinking she wasn’t going to be here my junior year was a little upsetting, and then coming back and having her and getting to finish off her last year like this is just amazing. It feels special, and it’s a season to remember, for sure.”

Sophia Moeller almost got to play with older sister Elise, now in her senior year playing for Youngstown State, but the two just missed each other. As much as Sophia would’ve liked to be on the court with Elise, she said she’s thrilled to continue the legacy of success that her older sister was also a part of.

“I was always upset that my parents had me and Elise four years apart, because I wish that we had at least one year in high school together. But with all the seniors, we’ve been playing with each other since fifth grade, and we have come together as a team and it’s just gotten easier to play with each other,” Sophia said. “I know that Sheila’s had really good teams in the past, and I wanted us seniors to succeed and go further than the other teams, so I feel like all of us seniors have really put in the extra work with club and in our off time, and I feel like that’s really trickled in to the last four years of us being in high school and really paid off. I feel like that’s also helped give us excitement and positivity, and also boosted our energy and intensity.”

Those are key qualities that Rock Falls teams have been known for under Pillars: determination, grit, hustle, desire, and the ability to find ways to win.

In fact, it’s been that way since the early years, and the stories have been told to junior Elizabeth Lombardo ever since her half-sister, Stephanie (Hernandez) DeVries, played in the first decade of Pillars’ tenure. Those two have bookended Pillars’ time at the Rock Falls helm.

“My parents like to talk about it, and my grandparents. I’ll hear a lot of old stories from back then. I never got to experience watching my sister play, but she’s definitely told me about it and her experiences with Sheila,” Lombardo said. “I think it shows a lot of good things for Sheila. A lot of families have been playing for her, and that big of a gap for me my sister is kind of cool. She was in Sheila’s early years – about 15 years ago – and now I’m finishing off her career.

“These past couple of weeks just haven’t felt real. I’m still trying to believe that we got to state this week. We’ve been dreaming of this for a long time, and I think it is cool to be in that group that finally made it.”