Video by Jacob Fulton
It is 7:45 p.m. on a Thursday evening, and the gym of Worthington Kilbourne High School is packed. Hundreds of fans are flooding out both entrances, while hundreds more fight against the current, trying to make their way into the stands.
The game will start 45 minutes late, because the one before it ran long. But this does not faze the girls volleyball team. As the attendees of the previous match make their way out, the team begins to warm up. They are here for the OHSAA regional semifinals, facing off against Bishop Watterson High School for a chance to play in the regional finals the following Saturday. The first game decided the first team in the regional finals—Olentangy Liberty, one of the team’s biggest rivals. But the team appears focused, prepared to win.
At 8:10 p.m., both teams stop warming up to begin the pregame ceremonies. The members of the team line up as the announcer begins reading off names. No. 8 on the list is senior Carrigan O’Reilly. She steps out of line when her name is called, waving to the crowd.
During the introductions, O’Reilly may seem like just another member of the team, but this changes quickly when the game begins. After every girl on both teams has been named, the starters move into position. She strides to her spot in the front row with confidence, ready for the game to start.
O’Reilly positions herself a few feet away from the net, standing perpendicular to it. She stares at the Bishop Watterson server calculatingly, preparing for her first move. The server tosses the ball up in the air, and O’Reilly tenses up, preparing to spring into motion. The roar of the crowd crashes over her, but she remains focused. The ball soars over the net, and the match begins.
This is O’Reilly’s fourth year on the varsity team; she joined the squad as a freshman. But her love for volleyball began before then. She first started playing in third grade because of her mother, Beth O’Reilly, who played volleyball in high school and college.
“Since she was around 4 or 5, she would ask me to come outside and pass the volleyball with her, but she never actually got into the formal sport until third grade. I pretty much decided for her that she was going to try. We were trying to find some activities for them to participate in, so I decided to sign her up for volleyball,” Beth said. “She was nervous at first, because the teams at her elementary school were full, so we had to go join a team at another school. But from then on she was hooked.”
Beth enjoyed coaching her daughter, but having previous coaching experience at the high school level sometimes affected her coaching style.
“I think it's such a neat experience to be able to coach your daughter. I was probably harder on her because I knew that she had some of the foundational skills because I had already started showing her that, so I put more of my focus into the other girls,” Beth said. “It was hard at times because I started putting her into that realm of high school thinking, and sometimes I had to remind myself that she was only 8. And then of course she went into middle school and I got to finally be mom. And I liked that job a lot too. It was nice to be able to just sit on the sidelines and watch.”
Beth coached her daughter for three years before O’Reilly decided to make the shift from playing in the Olentangy Youth Athletic Association to joining a club team. Though her mother may have stopped coaching her, O’Reilly said the experience gave them a commonality that would continue for years to come.
“My mom is definitely one of those people who I talk to about everything. I can be vulnerable and she's one of those people who I know will get it, will help me and give me direct feedback. Our relationship has gotten a lot stronger throughout the year, especially as I've progressed my skills,” O’Reilly said.
When she joined a club team at age 11, O’Reilly selected Mintonette Sports, where she has played ever since. With Mintonette, she has been a part of two teams that won USA Volleyball National Championships, in both 2012 and 2016. O’Reilly said that playing for a club team, she gained more confidence in her ability on the court.
“When I was 12, I was a really shy kid. I didn't really know where my head was on the court, but through the years I definitely got more of a trust with the court—I gained more control and became more comfortable with the way I play. These last two years of club have really been the years that I have grown the most,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly played club for three seasons before joining the high school team in addition to Mintonette. This year will be her seventh on a club team, but her trajectory as a player completely changed her freshman year.
“When I play club, I’m hitting, but when I play for the high school team, I’m a setter,” O’Reilly said. “Coach Duy kind of transformed me into a setter—she was the one who planted the idea within me and showed me what that could be like. I’ve always felt like she trusts me, and I know that I can rely on her and trust her.”
Head volleyball coach Katie Duy said that Carrigan’s transition to setting came as a result of both her pre-existing athletic ability and her innate understanding of the game.
“When Carrigan came in as a freshman, she was not only very athletic, but also had a high volleyball IQ. She understood that setting was not just about getting the ball to hitters, but running an offense,” Duy said. “She picked it up quickly and was willing to learn and take feedback. Each year she has looked more comfortable and confident in the setting position. She has continued to improve her other skills, like defense and hitting, which makes her a triple threat and is a rarity in volleyball.”
Since taking on the role of a setter, O’Reilly has transformed both as a player and a person—she is currently committed to play volleyball for Xavier University as a setter, and she has become a leader off and on the court.
“When I joined varsity my freshman year, I already knew some of the seniors and looked up to them. Actually playing with them was a surreal feeling, but throughout the years I got to a place where I became one of those people who other people look up to,” O’Reilly said. "I took a little from each of the leaders before me, and I try to show that in myself. My senior year, my main goal was to connect to everyone and to encourage everyone to do better so we could really hold strong as a team.”
O’Reilly’s leadership style has given her the opportunity to mentor individual players, such as freshman Hanna Borer. Borer is a setter as well, and will take on O’Reilly’s role once she graduates.
“She's given me some tips on how to be a better setter, but also how to help lead the team over the next few years,” Borer said. “She’s shown me the importance of being able to talk to the coaches when something is wrong, to step up and not be afraid. I'm still really young and I'm still going to be young next year. However, she has shown me that just because they're older, that doesn't mean they shouldn't listen to me. She has really shown me how important my role is.”
Beth has watched O’Reilly develop this leadership over the years, but has seen characteristics of it in her since before she joined the high school team.
“She’s always been a fairly shy girl, but she’s always had an innate sense of the importance of helping others,” Beth said. “ She's not an outright verbal leader—she tries to figure out how to individually lead each person to that ultimate outcome for all of them. And she’s persistent about it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but she tries again until it does.”
Even as a standout player, O’Reilly keeps the team in mind. She has been named to all-state teams two years in a row, being the first player in program history to do so after achieving Third Team All-State in 2017 and Second Team All-State this year. She also holds the school record for assists with 2286 in her high school career—surpassing the previous record of 369 assists her freshman year. But when it comes to her accolades, she hesitates to take all the credit.
“I honestly couldn't have done any of it without my hitters and without good passes,” O’Reilly said. “As much as reaching 2000 assists reflects on my ability as a setter, it's also a reflection of the team because I would never be able to get an assist without a kill or a pass to start with. I’m proud of my milestones, but it wasn’t all me.”
For teammates like Borer, who will return next year, O’Reilly’s absence will be felt, but it will also be an inspiration for the team to set bigger goals.
“I want to take the team even further for her because she helped me so much. I can't thank her enough for it,” Borer said. “She’s inspired me, and a lot of the returning team, to strive for states next year. She’s absolutely one of the best players to go to Orange, and she leaves a lot to live up to, but I think we can do it.”
O’Reilly walks off the court at Worthington Kilbourne at 9:30 p.m. with the rest of the team. They have successfully defeated Bishop Watterson in three straight sets, and O’Reilly played the entire time. The girls battle Olentangy Liberty in the regional championships two days later, and fall in five sets.
O’Reilly’s high school career may be finished, but she is far from done with volleyball. She ends her season, head held high, knowing her name will be etched into the history of her team for years to come. She may never wear an Orange jersey again, but she still has many more games to play.