La PORTE — While Paige Conklin may go largely unnoticed by some, La Porte's volleyball coaches and players know how valuable the Slicers setter is.
Her intelligent nature on the court, combined with her ability to play multiple positions, makes the junior beneficial and she's been influential in propelling the Slicers to their first sectional championship since 2016.
“(La Porte coach) Cassie (Holmquest) always tells me to be smart,” Conklin said. “And if we need to get out of a serve-receive, to get it to the person who's going to get us out of it. So you have to rely on your hitters a lot, too.”
Primarily the setter, Conklin added it's comforting to have an array of reliable offensive weapons to choose from.
“It helps a lot because I don't have to go to one person just to get out of it,” she said. “I can trust more than one person.”
Her coach recognizes that being a heady player on the floor begins with countless hours of devoted practice time, followed by understanding what the opposition is trying to accomplish.
“Being smart just has to come from practice,” Holmquest said. “She sees the other team well. She has an idea of what she thinks they're going to do and she's able to kind of set against whatever they're doing.”
Conklin and the Slicers (27-5) face Penn (28-6) in a Class 4A La Porte Regional semifinal at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
She immensely helped her team advance to the regional by winning the Mishawaka Sectional on Saturday, not losing a set in sweeping South Bend Adams, Plymouth and Michigan City.
Conklin did it in a variety of ways, as setter, offensive catalyst, defensive specialist and stellar server.
That versatility is part of what makes her so worthwhile.
“She's so dynamic and she's also very athletic,” Holmquest said. “She plays so many different roles for us, setter, hitter, she plays defense. She serves well. So she's kind of just an all-around, really good player.”
Last season, La Porte ran a 5-1 offense with Conklin and exclusively used her as a setter. This year, the coaches saw the team had the chance to run a 6-2, with Halle Seaburg playing setter and utilize Conklin in the front row. She hit for the Slicers a little bit this summer and opened up the coaches' eyes.
"We were really impressed and thought, 'Hey, we're just going to try her on the right side and see how this goes,'" Holmquest said. "And honestly, it's worked out phenomenal for us this year. She's doing so well with her hitting. Not only her hitting, she's a really great setter. But for her to also be able to hit is really good for us. It helps our team out a lot.”
Holmquest added the coaches recognized that Conklin was stout defensively at the net, too.
"Actually, last year she was a really good blocker for us, so we didn't want to lose her in the front row," the coach said. "So the hitting is a great bonus."
At the same time, Conklin understandably takes a tremendous amount of delight in being so flexible.
“I take a lot of pride in being so versatile on the court,” she said. “It started from the beginning and I've gotten better about it. And now I'm helping the team however I can.”
So far this campaign, Conklin has amassed a team-best 523 assists, or 5.6 assists per set, while recording 276 digs, good for second best on La Porte, to go along with 167 kills.
In the sectional final versus the Wolves, she finished with seven digs, 21 assists, four kills and four aces.
In addition to flourishing in the sport, Conklin is a stalwart student, too.
She earns all 'A' and 'B' grades as well as being enrolled in two Advanced Placement Classes in Psychology and Precalculus. Conklin is also a part of Girls Reserves and Spanish Club.
"My studies are really important," Conklin said. "Academics come before volleyball, so you have to focus on them. Colleges look at academics before what kind of player you are."
If the Slicers prevail over Penn, they meet the Munster/Crown Point winner in the regional final at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Mustangs and Bulldogs play in Saturday’s second match at roughly 11:30 a.m.
Paige's older sister, Sierra Conklin, a 2013 La Porte graduate. played volleyball for the Slicers as well, and continued her volleyball career at Indiana University-South Bend. Paige said she would definitely like to play at the next level and follow in her sister's footsteps.
At this time, she doesn't have any particular schools in mind, with another season still left with the Slicers.
First, Conklin is concentrating on guiding La Porte to a regional championship.
“We need to make less errors than what we have been and staying consistent throughout the game,” she said. “If we could win the regional, it would boost our confidence a lot and make it tougher in practice. And it would show us we're better than what we think.”