Hejza has the Hawks primed for a title

PARK RIDGE, Ill. -- Maine South outside hitter Eric Butch prefers his passes to come quick and in exactly the same spot every time.

Middle hitter Matt Butch needs to receive the ball high because he's a leaper. The other middle hitter, Evan Bowler, doesn't have as much of a vertical, so passes to him must have less air.

Like any volleyball team around the country, Maine South's hitters all require a different sort of pass. Unlike every team around the country, Maine South has someone who can deliver those passes.

Hawks senior setter Mike Hejza, the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week, might not smash home the crushing spikes or embarrassingly reject opponents at the net, but his understanding of where his teammates need the ball and his ability to put it exactly there have been crucial factors in why Maine South is nationally ranked, a perfect 39-0 and the favorite to win the state volleyball championship this weekend.

"Coming into the season, we wanted him to be the setter, be the quarterback, be the leader on the floor and to take control of the team offensively," Maine South coach Gary Granell said. "He's really done that this season. He's really stepped up and done what we've asked him to do.

"I think that a lot of times the setter is kind of like the unsung hero because they don't get the big kills. They don't get the big motivation points in the end. I think he is an unsung hero of this team because without him nothing works."

Hejza has come a long way since making his varsity debut as a sophomore. Back then, he had the physical gifts to be an elite setter, but he was inconsistent and still learning to run a team. As a junior, he took steps forward.

Now, as a senior, he's put it all together. Hejza delivers the pinpoint passes, but he also makes the correct decisions for Maine South to succeed.

"Physically is one thing," Granell said. "The mental aspect is a big thing.

"Just like a quarterback in football, you have to not only read your own hitters and know what's best for them and who's hot and who's not, but knowing what's on the other side and evaluating the situation and matching our best hitters with their weakest blockers. You have to constantly be evaluating those things as the match progresses. That's one thing he's really done a nice job of -- making sure he's maximizing our strengths and their weaknesses at the same time."

Hejza doesn't mind being Maine South's unsung hero. He's just fine being a key piece behind the scenes. Just as he passes off assists, he's just as willing to pass off the credit.

"I put the ball where it needs to be, and the hitters do it all," said Hejza, who has 1,640 assists this season. "They find the seams in the blocks and put the ball away to get the point and the kill. I give them the credit when they get the kill. They're making me look good where the sets are."

What is important to Hejza is winning the state championship. It's been his only goal ever since June 6, 2009.

A year ago, the Hawks were considered one of the state's better teams, but not a title contender, especially after falling twice during a three-game span in early May. But after enduring those lumps in May, Maine South won 16 consecutive matches and ended up in the state championship against Wheaton Warrenville South.

In the title match, Wheaton Warrenville South knocked off the Hawks 25-23, 25-14 and captured its third consecutive state title. Since, Maine South has focused on avenging that defeat.

For Hejza, the title is especially important as his competitive volleyball days might be numbered after this season. He plans on attending Indiana University next year, and he's unsure whether he'll join the Hoosiers' club team.

"I know it means a lot to all of the juniors and sophomores, but definitely the seniors," Hejza said. "We were so close last year, and we know what it feels like to lose that last game. We definitely want it really bad this year."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at preps@espnchicago.com.