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Baranek: Shepard’s McAlpin takes on tall task, succeeds

Shepard's Chrystal McAlp| Tony Baranek/Sun-Times Media

Shepard's Chrystal McAlpin | Tony Baranek/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 15, 2013 6:24AM



Girls volleyball coach Dan Grunauer has a pretty sweet deal with the secretaries at Shepard.

Whenever they see a tall girl for the first time they give him a heads up.

So it was four years ago on registration day, when he got a pretty intense call from Esther Roth.

“She said, ‘Grunauer, you need to come down here right away,’ ’’ he related.

Waiting for him was freshman-to-be Chrystal McAlpin.

“She was the same height she is now (6-foot-1),” Grunauer said. “When I walked in I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. She’s huge.’ ”

Thus began a journey that has become a most unlikely volleyball success story.

McAlpin is the starting middle hitter for the Astros. She is the team leader in blocks (39) and among the leaders in kills (94). She’s also a leader in the school as the vice president of her class, a National Honor Society member and a Shepard ambassador, peer mediator and student mentor.

McAlpin is being recruited for volleyball by Chicago State, Northern Illinois and UIC.

Pretty amazing stuff considering she (1) played little organized volleyball in grammar school and (2) wasn’t exactly a natural.

All McAlpin knew when she came to Shepard as a basketball and track athlete was that she wanted to be like All-American volleyball player Destinee Hooker.

“It was such an amazing sport,” McAlpin said. “I’d watch it on ESPN and see Destinee. Then I watched the Olympics, and to see them slamming balls, it was so exciting.

“I came to Shepard very determined to play volleyball. Coach (Grunauer) told me I could play, but we’d have to see where I fit in with the team.”

She didn’t fit in anywhere as it turned out. As a player, anyway.

Her tryout was less-than-stellar.

“I did some running back and forth,” McAlpin said. “My approach was pretty shabby. I was watching the hitting lines with varsity, looking at Stephanie Korbakes just slamming balls, and I was like, ‘Wow.’

“When I got to the sophomore court I tried it and couldn’t even make it over the net.”

But that wasn’t the worst of it. In her attempt to get to the ball, she would run over people.

“I remember once she just barrel-rolled Sam Newhall trying to block,” Grunauer said. “I was like, ‘OK, we might be hurting some kids here.’ ”

Her attitude and enthusiasm, though, was hard to dismiss. And with that size … Grunauer came up with a pretty interesting solution.

McAlpin was installed as the manager on the sophomore team, where she could work at practice with coach Dustin Cochrane.

“(Cochrane) is a phenomenal coach,” Grunauer said. “I knew what he would do with her, and I knew he would keep her driven.”

McAlpin didn’t grow anymore, but her abilities did, thanks in no small part, she said, to one of the program’s best players, Korbakes.

“Stephanie was like a sister to me,” McAlpin said. “She’d come in in the mornings and work with me. My tempo eventually got faster. And we had some classes together, so she’d give me advice about better time management. She was just a great mentor.”

By the end of her freshman year McAlpin was playing club ball. The following fall she earned a spot on the sophomore roster.

As a junior, McAlpin was an integral part of Shepard’s varsity front line with 79 kills and 42 blocks.

Determination had paid off.

“When you are thrown something negative and not handed what you want you have to keep working until you get it,” McAlpin said. “If that involves coming in at 5 a.m. or staying until maybe 10:30, you just have to do it. No one is going to hand you anything.”



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