They’re headed to the USA Volleyball Open Championship, where they’ll compete against some of the top talent in the nation. Here’s how they came together and built a winning team right in Rockford.
This Memorial Day weekend, a team of local women will descend on Orlando, Fla., as their BB-ranked team, the Screw City Sirens, becomes Rockford’s first women’s volleyball team to compete in the USA Volleyball Open Championship.
The women range in age from about 23 to 34 and include an accountant, a teacher, an attorney, students, other professionals and a stay-at-home mom with four daughters all under the age of 8.
“I really like that we’re all young professionals,” says team captain Kylee Miller. An attorney with Tuite Law, Miller is the team’s setter, a position she likens to that of a quarterback. “A setter runs the offense. You’re running constantly, from the back row to the front row.”
Like most of their teammates, Miller and her younger sister, Rachel – a pin hitter for the Screw City Sirens – have been playing volleyball most of their lives. Both played at Keith Country Day School and throughout their college years.
After graduating law school in 2017, Miller was looking for a place she could play volleyball, and she found it at downtown Rockford’s UW Health Sports Factory. When sports supervisor Derek Papich saw how well she played, he began introducing her to other people.
“I started playing. When my sister came to town we brought her in, and I started developing teams from there,” says Miller, who has become a Sports Factory regular.
Although slowed somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Screw City Sirens’ current lineup has been playing together in various combinations for roughly three years.
In addition to the Miller sisters, the lineup comprises pin hitters Mackenzie Macek, Cali Slavin and Taylor Lewis Jacobi; pin hitter/defensive specialist Bailey VanVleet (cousin of NBA player Fred VanVleet); middle hitters Katie Hoffman and Sadie Kosciuk; and libero Ashley Smith (a graphics designer at Northwest Quarterly).
Over the years, Miller began noticing different personality types do well at certain positions.
“I have, politely put, control issues,” Miller teases. “As a setter, I like to have control in designing the offense, and defense is a good position for me. The pin hitters on the left side have to be reliable, all-around players. They have to deal with a bunch of things – like if there’s a ball nobody else can get to, they’re expected to get it – and they rescue a lot of things. So, they tend to be your most amiable players. They’re not only competitive, they’re confident in themselves and know they’re going to succeed. That’s why it’s a good position for my sister as well as Mackenzie, Taylor and Callie.”
By virtue of their position on the court, middle hitters are in the midst of the action, so they need to be fast and quick-thinking, Miller adds. Libero, however, is a unique position with its own set of rules. Liberos can sub in and out for other players, and they have a different uniform from their teammates.
“Liberos and defensive specialists have to be fearless because they’re getting the volleyball hit at them at 80 miles an hour and they can’t duck,” Miller says. “So, they both tend to be very competent.”
Rachel graduates from University of Illinois College of Medicine-Rockford in May, and she plans to leave for St. Louis in June to begin her residency in neurology at Washington University Hospital. Miller knows she needs to add another player to the team soon, but instead of holding tryouts, Miller prefers to scout for potential talent.
“Right now, this is a group of people who we know play well together. We’ve been successful at a number of different tournaments,” Miller says. When it comes down to bringing in new team members, she says fun is a priority. “I’d rather have good attitude over good talent. We got lucky in that everybody is talented and fun at the same time.”
They’re all committed, too. The Screw City Sirens usually have two nights a week of league play, 2-hour practices on Monday nights, plus various tournaments – mostly around Wisconsin and the Chicago suburbs. But they also have to stay flexible in case another event at the Sports Factory means no courts are available for them to practice.
Any team can compete in the national open championship, but the competition is ferocious. The Screw City Sirens enter at the BB ranking, which puts them in the middle of the pack – behind AA and A levels and the Open division (which includes former Olympians and pro athletes), but ahead of B level.
Heading to nationals is an expensive endeavor. Miller estimates that – even using her lawyerly negotiation skills to land discounts when possible – travel costs, lodging and uniforms will cost at least $7,000.
Teammates have held several fundraisers, including a popcorn sale around Easter, and they’ve made space for sponsors’ logos on their new jersey warmups.
“Taylor’s father offered to pay for the warmups, so that saves us some money. Ashley Smith is a graphic designer, so she’s designed our logo. All of those things are helping bring down the costs,” Miller notes.
Now that COVID restrictions have been lifted, another way to support the team – and the sport – is to go to the Sports Factory to watch team practices.
“Sunday nights are what I would recommend,” Miller says, “There are co-ed leagues that play usually from 5 until about 9 p.m. It usually encompasses five or six courts, minimum, and it’s all different skill sets. And once the Sports Factory Bar opens up, you can sit in the bar and watch. It’s a good setup.”
Team members also rely on the support of their families and employers.
“My law firm is sponsoring, and is obviously cool with me going to Nationals,” Miller says. Mackenzie works at Texas Roadhouse, which assisted with fundraising by holding a special night where 10% of the restaurant’s profits went to the team.
While practicing and fundraising are priorities leading up to Nationals, once the team is in Florida, Miller says, “We’re just going to have a lot of fun with it. And I think we have a good shot at winning.”
Meet the Team
It’s more fun to cheer for a team when you feel like you know its members. Consider this your introduction to some of the Screw City Sirens players.
• Position: Pin Hitter / Defensive Specialist | Ht: 5’7”
• How long have you played volleyball? Since I was 8.
• Where have you played? Guilford High School, Rock Valley College, Club Fusion, Rockford Volleyball Club.
• Favorite memory about volleyball: Favorite memory is freshman season at Rock Valley.
• What are you looking forward to at Nationals? Being surrounded by volleyball for three days with people who love it as much as I do.
• Position: Pin Hitter | Height: 5’9”
• How long have you played volleyball? 22 years
• Where have you played? Keith Country Day School, Club Fusion, Case Western Reserve University
• Favorite thing about volleyball: Sharing the court with my sister, Kylee Miller.
• What are you looking forward to at Nationals? Playing some intense, nail-biter games against teams from all over and spending a whole week playing the game I love.
• Position: Libero | Height: 5’5” (“5’5 1/2 on a good day.”)
• How long have you played volleyball? 16 years
• Where have you played? Hononegah High School, Clarke University (Dubuque, Iowa), Capital Volleyball Academy
• Favorite memory: Too many to count, but my biggest would probably be breaking a career record at my alma mater… with a pancake.
• What are you looking forward to at Nationals? I’m most looking forward to being back in the OCCC and experiencing that environment again.
Taylor Lewis Jacobi
• Position: Pin Hitter | Height: 5’ 10”
• How long have you played volleyball? 16 years
• Where have you played? Hononegah High School, Club Fusion, Rockford Volleyball, Beloit College
• Favorite thing about volleyball: I love that volleyball is a team sport rooted in communication. No matter your background or experience, you have to work together toward a common goal.
• What are you looking forward to at Nationals? I am most looking forward to representing the Rockford area in a big tournament down south. I can’t wait to see new faces and elevated competition.
• Position: Middle Hitter | Height: 5’ 10”
• How long have you played volleyball? 20 years, starting in 7th grade
• Where have you played? Sterling High School, No Limits Volleyball Club, Sauk Valley Community College, Robert Morris University (Springfield, Ill.)
• Favorite thing about volleyball: I love volleyball because it never ends. Grass, sand or court we can play year-round.
• What are you looking forward to at Nationals? To have three days of competitive play.