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On the same side: Cooper, Swistek are high school rivals turned teammates with Valparaiso volleyball

VALPARAISO -- The first time Valparaiso University teammates Kara Cooper and Elise Swistek faced each other on a volleyball court was in middle school.

"She like single-handedly destroyed my team," Cooper said of Swistek. "She scored like every single point."

Two years apart, Cooper (La Porte) and Swistek (New Prairie) faced off again in high school where, this time, it was Swistek bemoaning the opposition.

"La Porte was our biggest rival," Swistek said. "I was like, oh gosh, no one wanted to play them. Every time we played them, we knew we were going to get demolished. Then they've got Kara, who's like 6-4. How am I going to get around it?"

Finally, this school year, the pair found themselves on the same side of the net as Swistek joined Cooper at VU, where the pair emerged as major contributors to a Beacons team that reached the National Invitation Volleyball Championship.

"I was in her shoes when I was a freshman and Haley (Hart) was injured. It was a challenge," Cooper said. "You need your team to support you and she's done great. I don't think she's a freshman at all on the court. I'm never worried when she's getting set or getting served to. I always know she can take care of the ball. Her passing is incredible. She never shanks. She never gives up an ace. She's stepped up a lot for our team this year."

Nobody's a bigger fan of Swistek than Valpo coach Carin Avery, a similarly undersized outside hitter in her playing days, but on the court, the 5-foot-9 freshman has really drawn upon the support of her older teammates.

"Carin's been one who's really pushed me," Swistek said. "She never gave up on me. She likes smaller outsides, like Bella (Ravotto). We're small, but she always trusts us to figure out ways to get kills. If we're not succeeding, we're at least playing our defensive spots. We're always doing something for the team. I feel like, no matter what I do, (teammates) always come up to me (and say), we need you, you got this, we trust you to do something good with the ball. Kara will come up to me and push me, get in my face. It makes me feel better."

By coincidence, both players saw their roles increase dramatically in the early stages of the season when starting outside hitters Jilly Grant and Gretchen Kuckkan went down with major injuries in the span of a week.

"They were playing their best volleyball," Avery said. "We were 11-1, rolling through pre-season. Kara was playing some, alternating; Elise just got in here and there. They went in the full-time starting lineup right when conference (play) started. Here we have Elise, she played (3A) volleyball at New Prairie last year, we're in conference, you not only have to play, you have to play every minute of every set and you don't come out. The growth she's had has been phenomenal. Maddy (Boyer) and Kara, you talk about the growth of their game, it has been phenomenal."

For Cooper, it meant a change in position.

"I've been a middle my whole life. Playing on the right side this year was a challenge, but I think I've gotten a lot more confident over the year," she said. "My teammates, the setters, they have given me great balls. It's a credit to them for helping me."

Swistek wasn't changing positions, though she had her hands full with the leap from high school to Division I.

"I was used to playing all the way around, but coming to college, it's a lot different; bigger girls, harder swings," she said. "At the beginning of the season, it was so hard to play defense. I could never figure out what side to go, left or right. That took a lot of practice, I would say a couple months to finally figure it out. I think these last five matches have been the best defense I've had. Hitting has been a lot more difficult. In high school, they're not that big. I could just slam it down. I'm working on tooling. Carin's teaching me how to do that."

Avery has enjoyed watching Swistek's development on multiple levels.

"It's so fun to watch, she's always been a quiet person, to see her get out of her shell as a person and a volleyball player," Avery said. "Lots of people give me criticism for recruiting short outside hitters. I was 5-8. I'm like, you can do it. My system, I tried to go out of it a couple years and those years weren't as good. It's such that we need those 5-7, 5-8 outside hitters. Everything else, Bella, Elise do, people don't see it. I call them the engine. Without an engine, the car's not going to run. Without Bella and Elise, our program would not run."

Valpo loses top hitters in Hart and Peyton McCarthy, setter Brittany Anderson and libero Rylee Cookerly, but has a red-shirt setter (Addy Kois) and will get Grant and Kuckkan back to go with its recruiting class.

"When your leaders are seniors who are bought in, everybody else will buy in. They've been bought in for years," Avery said. "The five seniors are the epitome of Valpo student-athletes. They love volleyball, they love their teammates, they like their coaches, they love Valparaiso University. I think that's special. Yes, it will be hard to replace them, but we've got some kids chomping at the bit who have worked really hard to get in there to play. I think who's going to take over those leadership roles, that will be the trickiest part, not so much the play."

A senior to be, Cooper looks to assume some of that responsibility.

"The seniors were a huge part of our team. It's going to be hard to replace them," she said. "I think we'll still be a really good team. I'm really excited about the opportunity to be a leader next year."

With her feet now firmly established on college ground, Swistek aims to continue progressing from her All-Missouri Valley Conference Freshman Team season.

"I'm only going to be a sophomore, but no one treats anyone like they're younger," she said. "Having a year playing almost all season, I think it will help. It's going to take a while, but as a freshman, I feel like I'm stepping up, so these next few years will be good."

Elise Swistek and Kara Cooper were volleyball rivals in high schools at New Prairie and La Porte who are now teammates at Valparaiso University.

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