Who's hot around the area in girls volleyball entering the state tournament?
St. Charles East, Hampshire and Burlington Central.
All three schools enjoyed slamming regular seasons, respectively, combining to dominate opponents to the tune of a 94-12 overall record.
Familiar foes Hampshire (34-2) and Burlington Central (29-6) are both in the hunt for the Class 3A state title, while St. Charles East (31-4) hopes to continue advancing in Class 4A when regional action opens for both classes on Thursday.
A state title is not out of the question for any of them, as results have proven. However, of the three, one would have to say only Hampshire is a bit of a mystery -- if there is one -- based on strength of schedule.
Even that certainly changed this past week after Hampshire knocked off Burlington Central and Geneva (4A). The Whip-Purs beat the Vikings twice on the same day to cap off a 4-for-4 performance in capturing tourney titles this season -- albeit predominantly against Class 2A teams.
But Hampshire can't be blamed for that. The program learned it would be moving up in class size late in the game after schedules had already been set.
And don't forget. A good core of the Whip-Purs' returners this season have plenty of postseason experience after finishing second Downstate last season.
"Maybe at the beginning of the season the girls were disappointed we got bumped to (Class 3A)," said Hampshire coach Karen Whitehouse, whose team is the top seed at the Belvidere Regional. "But we set standards and the expectations are the same. We didn't change any of that.
"Our great finish to the regular season only gives us more confidence going into the tournament."
The Whip-Purs rely on major production from twin junior sisters Amy and Kara Wehrs, but consistent contributions from several others, including a quartet of juniors -- Cassie Dumoulin, Chrissy Heine, Jennifer Hubbe and Chessa Osiecki -- have proven to be equally important in success.
"Our team chemistry and mental toughness is amazing right now," Amy Wehrs said. "We've definitely been playing with a lot of confidence."
Despite dropping its most recent match to Hampshire, Burlington Central isn't exactly lacking any confidence entering the postseason, either. The two-time Big Northern Conference East champion Rockets, however, expect to be tested early at the Sycamore regional seeded No. 2 behind the host Spartans -- the same opponent which sent Central packing last season.
"Yeah, we lost to Hampshire and that was a big bummer," Central junior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus said. "We played good and they played good. But I don't think we really lost that much confidence. I think it makes us more determined to get better as a team so we can go out and beat Kaneland and get to Sycamore. We want to see them again."
Holthus and senior setter Molly Turk headline Central's cast, but like the Whips, balance has been important. Senior Meghan Zasada and junior Taylor Scully, among others, have also had their share of memorable moments.
St. Charles East played arguably the area's toughest non-conference schedule -- and rarely came up on the short end. In fact, the Saints lost to only two teams this season, dropping two matches each to Naperville Central and Joliet Catholic (3A).
In league play, East went 10-0 to win the Upstate Eight Conference. All of that added up to a No. 1 seed at the Elmhurst Sectional, which also includes St. Charles North (19-16). The Saints will open up against either West Chicago or Proviso West. If the seeds play out, a date with rival Geneva for a sectional title looms.
"These girls have truly had an amazing season," said Saints coach Jennie Kull, whose team is looking for a return trip Downstate after finishing third last year. "Our schedule and everything we've worked for has been to get us ready for the (state tournament) and I think this team will be ready to go."
St. Charles East counts on senior setter Laura Homann and junior outside hitter Caroline Niski in crunch time. Senior Haley Streich, junior Jacqui Seidel and freshman Meghan Niski also surface regularly among the team's stat leaders.