NEAR NORTH SIDE — Those who say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades haven't seen Walter Payton College Prep's girls volleyball team this season.
The Grizzlies' players are ultra tight. The start of their school week is dubbed "Monday Bunday" as each player wears her hair in a bun. The team visits local frozen yogurt places every Friday, which they call "Froyo Fridays." They also conduct Internet group chats every night.
"We talk about everything, including the weird stuff that makes us who we are," said senior outside hitter Agata Oborka, of West Elsdon.
Their familiarity has paid off as the second-seeded Grizzlies (20-9) find themselves in Thursday night's IHSA Class 3A sectional final against top-seeded Latin School of Chicago (19-1) at Westinghouse College Prep, 3223 W. Franklin Blvd.
With two more victories, Payton will advance to the state semifinals for the third time in six years.
"I've had two Final Four teams, but I can say this group is by far the closest group of girls I've ever coached at Payton," said seventh-year coach Joel Anderson, of Uptown.
The only thing that might supplant Payton's bond is its players' intelligence. The team's five seniors all scored at least a 27 on the ACT, and four of them earned at least a 30 — topping the school's 29.5 average out of a possible 36.
"It's not something we bring up," said senior outside hitter Morgan Barnes, of Lincoln Park, who had a team-best test score of 34.
Barnes hopes to attend either UCLA or USC, majoring in biology. Oborka is looking at the University of Illinois or University of Wisconsin, with a focus in marketing or communications.
Setter Alyssa Estrada and defensive specialist Maya Rodriguez, both seniors who make lengthy commutes from the East Side, both have big plans after graduation. Estrada (31 ACT) wants to go to either Stanford or Columbia and major in some type of engineering. Rodriguez (30) would like to stay closer to home and attend the University of Chicago, major in chemistry and work as a pediatric oncologist.
Lena Mickelson (32), a senior libero from Jefferson Park, also is looking at the U. of C., plus Davidson College and Carleton College. Her desired major is biology with a career as a physician.
"We'll see everyone helping each other with homework before games," Estrada said. "It's a very friendly environment."
The upside: "They are able to process everything you say," he said. On the other hand, "they also, a lot of times, over-analyze what you say."
"It can work for you, but I've also seen it work against you. By and large though, it works for you," he said.
The Grizzlies' players said court intelligence has contributed to helping them win 20 matches this season, but stressed their ability to function well at multiple positions was a bigger factor.
They also noted the preparation during the offseason — which included nine-hour summer days playing volleyball at North Avenue Beach — was key.
"Everyone put in a lot of time this year, and everybody has been really focused," Mickelson said. "And we've really been able to trust each other, on and off the court."
When asked about their season ending either Thursday or in the coming days, some of the Grizzlies' seniors almost started crying.
They said it was a natural reaction after how connected they've become this year.
"We are like a family," Oborka said.
Payton faces Latin at 7 p.m. Thursday at Westinghouse in the sectional championship match.