MOUNT ZION — Every-fast moving vehicle needs an engine that can go into overdrive.
For the runaway train that is Mount Zion volleyball, Ali Vaughn is that engine.
The junior setter has been at the heart of the Braves (33-4) all season, and will continue to be when they travel to the Class 3A Effingham Sectional semifinal for a third match against Apollo Conference rival Taylorville this season.
“She's the engine that makes it all go, she really is,” Mount Zion coach Jay McAtee said. “She's the best setter I've ever seen and I think one of the best setters who's ever set around central Illinois.”
Her stats back up that assertion.
According to Maxpreps.com, Vaughn ranks third in the state, in all classes, with 862 assists this season — trailing Michaela Mueller of St. Viator and Molly Murrihy of Chicago Marist, who is committed to play at the University of Memphis.
It doesn't hurt matters that Vaughn has a plethora of hitters to dish the ball to, a five-headed monster as McAtee calls it. Reiley Drake, Hayden Engelbrecht, Dayna Kennedy, Kaitlyn Lillipop and Karlee McAtee make up that monster, and are producing eye-popping numbers themselves.
The latter four are all hitting better than .300 this season — the Braves sit at .298 as a team.
“If you've got a team that hits .300, that's one of the top four in the state. To accomplish that is very rare,” Jay McAtee said. “To have one or two players hit .300 is a luxury. But to have a team average .300, it's just like baseball, you hit .300, you're pretty darn good.”
That starts with Vaughn passing the ball around with precision and the perfect amount of touch to all parts of the court.
In 2,000 set attempts this season, Vaughn has just 21 errors — another feat that is a rarity in the sport.
“It all works together and we can't get any of those kills without that good pass to Ali,” Jay McAtee said. “It's fun. When things get rolling on that offense, it's like no offense that I've ever coached before.”
The Braves operate quickly. Jay McAtee has his team run a fast-pace offense, and that requires a fast-reading setter.
Vaughn is used to it, though. Her club team — Illini Elite Cardinal — also runs a high-octane attack. Bringing those skills to the high school level is nothing new for her.
Because of that, Jay McAtee puts all of his trust in the junior.
“She's a very good floor general on the court,” Jay McAtee said. “She's in total charge of every set that's made. She's calling out every set and every play. We run a quicker offense with a lot of options, so she has to make sure that her hitters know what she's setting and then she has to put the set in the right spot, which she does 99.9 percent of the time.”
Jay McAtee says Vaughn's biggest strength is to pass the ball anywhere on the floor at any time. It's a craft she perfected last season when she had backside passes to H&R Macon County Player of the Year Erin Ripple.
Now, she has more weapons at her disposal, making her more lethal than ever before.
McAtee puts her in charge of everything on the floor. She's his general and her troops have heavy artillery.
With her instincts, it doesn't take her long to decipher a defense to single out the teammate to pass it to.
“Most of the time, we start out seeing who the big blockers are on the other side so that also plays into the factor of who I'm going to set so they don't get blocked,” Vaughn said. “If it's a really intense game, a lot of them will look at me and be like, 'Hey, set me. I'm ready to hit.'”
McAtee hates to make a comparison when it comes to Vaughn, but a few similarities stick out between her and another great setter who was under McAtee's tutelage: Jordan Wooden.
Wooden ranks No. 8 all-time in IHSA history with 2,746 assists when she played for St. Teresa from 2008-2011.
“Jordan Wooden was an amazing setter, and I don't want to compare the two because they both are great at what they do and are very good leaders,” McAtee said. “They are winners.
“They're very equal. I would say Ali has got a little bit more touch on the ball and can make more of a variety of passes.”
Vaughn is just that: A winner.
Since eighth grade her teams have gone a combined 148-16 that culminated in an IESA Class 4A 7th grade state championship in 2014, and an 8th grade third-place finish in 2015.
The Braves will have to tackle the ghost of sectional past Monday evening against Taylorville.
Last season in the sectional semifinal, the Tornadoes sent Mount Zion home.
But things are different this year, and Mount Zion has its eyes on the first sectional plaque in McAtee's tenure.
“Our passers have gotten so much better,” Vaughn said of the difference between last year and this year. “I couldn't do my job without them. I've been able to run the offense as smoothly as possible. It's just helped tremendously with all of those hitters.”