Elite players at any level of sport possess a competitive nature unrivaled by the majority of their peers, but staying composed when the game is on the line can often be a more difficult balance to strike.
What happens when the pressure of the moment becomes unbearable? Who will keep their teammates together when adversity arrives? And which players achieve greatness by their ability to rise above the moment and deliver for their team?
That self-possessed demeanor has always been second nature for Bergen Reilly.
Ever since she first touched the court for O’Gorman High School (S.D.) as an eighth grader, the top-ranked volleyball setter in the nation has helped set the standard for a program that enters the 2022 fall season in search of a historic third-straight Class AA state title.
Reilly’s passion for volleyball has taken her far beyond her community in Sioux Falls, S.D. She’s traveled internationally to represent USA Volleyball at the youth level, putting her on the radar of top-level scouts and coaches. While her relentless work ethic has been the driving force behind her success, Reilly sets the standard at O’Gorman with her infectious personality.
For Reilly, there’s no moment too difficult to handle.
“She’s competitive, don’t get me wrong. She’s very competitive,” says O’Gorman’s second-year coach, Cale Hecht. “But she has this kind of calm demeanor that I think sets the tone in our gym. You have Bergen Reilly, who has this calm, cool and collected demeanor and doesn’t really get frazzled in high-pressure situations. I think that’s something that’s come as she’s grown and played on bigger stages, but she has this calming persona that kind of feeds off in the rest of the gym, especially the girls on the varsity team she’s always playing with.
“It’s a pretty solid team in that it takes a lot to get them frazzled. I think that all starts with Bergen.”
In July 2021, Reilly committed to the University of Nebraska, and everything else seemed to fall into place. Two months later, she helped guide Team USA to a bronze-medal finish at the U18 World Championship in Mexico before returning to O’Gorman and leading the Knights to a second-straight Class AA crown. Then over the summer, Reilly was named MVP at the Pan American Cup when the U19 team took home gold in Tulsa, Okla.
Reilly has won back-to-back honors as Gatorade South Dakota Volleyball Player of the Year and is coming off a junior year in which she amassed 393 assists, 191 kills, 174 digs, 43 aces and 29 blocks. As both a setter and an outside hitter, Reilly relies on her versatility, recording a hitting percentage of .341 and a kill percentage of .434 last season.
“It feels kind of mind-blowing how crazy and easy some of that stuff is for her, but it is because she’s spent hours in the gym and always wants to learn and takes feedback and all that stuff,” Hecht says. “It makes things very easy for me because she’s so versatile and has a great attitude about it. She loves playing somewhere else, and I think it’s just because she loves the game.”
Reilly first began playing volleyball when she was 7 years old and was drawn to the sport by her older sister, Raegan.
The two sisters are separated by just two years, and their connection on the court has brought them closer together over the years. When COVID-19 brought the sports world to a halt in 2020, Bergen and Raegan turned to each other to stay on top of their game.
“The biggest part was during quarantine when no one really had anyone to play with, we could just play with each other, get a ball, get some reps in,” Bergen says. “We could always kind of hold each other accountable for what we were doing, so I think that’s been huge for both of us.”
By the time Bergen reached eighth grade, she was starting for O’Gorman, and she immediately began to realize her potential. It’s uncommon for any eighth grader to compete against high schoolers, but in South Dakota’s most competitive classification (Class AA), it’s an anomaly.
During that first varsity season, the Knights ran a 6-2 system that allowed Bergen to play exclusively as a setter on the back row, and she was used heavily, playing in 108 sets and finishing the year with 549 assists, both single-season highs in her varsity career.
Bergen admits the early years were a little nerve-wracking, but Raegen’s presence on the court helped alleviate those concerns.
“Having her there just made the transition seamless,” Bergen says. “My first couple of games I was a little nervous, but once I got the hang of it, everyone was so welcoming and so good to me that I really had nothing to be nervous about.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment of her high school career came when the Knights finished the 2020 season with a state title. Bergen was a sophomore for O’Gorman that year, while Raegan was one of seven seniors who guided the Knights to a perfect 26-0 record and the first undefeated Class AA state championship season since 1991.
Bergen played both setter and right-side hitter, racking up 400 kills, 260 digs, 131 assists, 62 blocks and 36 aces, with a kill percentage of .448 and a hitting percentage of .304.
“It was so special,” Bergen says. “There were seven seniors on that team, and they all became some of my best friends. One of them was my sister. Just winning a state championship and especially having it be an undefeated season, which hasn’t happened since the ‘90s, we knew there was something special there, so we wanted to go after it.
“That team was just unwilling to lose, and I think that was just such a crazy year and such a special team.”
Raegan wrapped up her prep career with three all-state selections and played Division I volleyball for North Dakota State last season before transferring to South Dakota State in January.
Meanwhile, the Knights went on to win back-to-back state championships, despite Bergin missing time in late September of the 2021 season to compete for Team USA at the U18 World Championship.
During bracket play at the World Championship, Team USA won five-set thrillers in consecutive nights over Argentina and Turkey before getting swept by Italy in the semifinals. They bounced back on the final night, however, to defeat Serbia and claim the bronze medal.
“That was just an unreal experience for me,” Bergen says. “Being my first time playing international volleyball, it’s insane. The speed of the game is just a whole different level, and the competition you’re playing against night in and night out is just something I’d never experienced before. It was so cool because everyone pushed us. There wasn’t a single easy game.”
Her exploits with USA Volleyball didn’t end there.
In July, Bergen guided Team USA to a gold-medal finish at the U19 Pan Am Cup in Tulsa. Despite a target on their backs as the team to beat in the tournament, the Americans didn’t drop a single set during the competition and finished things off by avenging a scrimmage loss against Brazil in the final.
“We kind of were like, ‘OK, now we know what they do and how they run things,’” says Bergen, who earned MVP honors and was named Best Setter. “When we played them again in the gold-medal match, we just kind of took them out of their systems. That was super cool, too, because we kind of had a gauge for how much we grew.
“We lost to them before the tournament started and then came back and swept them. That was really rewarding to see the team and how we all came together in those five days.”
Bergen’s recruiting process began in eighth grade, but on May 1, 2019, a new NCAA recruiting rule went into effect that was intended to slow down the trend of coaches offering scholarships to athletes as young as seventh and eighth grade. The new rules prevent any communication between a student-athlete or parent/guardian and a Division I coach before June 15 after sophomore year.
“It was a little weird,” Bergen says. “I had phone calls with coaches, and then the next week, I would send them emails, but they couldn’t respond. It’s tough because you don’t really know. Are they interested? Are they not? They could be super interested, but they can’t respond.
“So I think I had to kind of work through that, but I just kept in contact with all the schools I was interested in.”
Bergen said she never planned to commit as fast as she did. She had intended to take her official visits to Kentucky, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but after a trip to Lincoln, Neb., to attend a volleyball camp on campus, Bergen committed to the Cornhuskers on July 15, 2021, choosing the reigning NCAA Tournament runners-up over offers from Creighton, Purdue and Texas.
“I just fell in love with it,” Bergen says. “I knew that I wasn’t going to find anywhere else that I liked more, so I kind of still wanted to take my officials. But then my parents were like, ‘That’s kind of pointless if you already know,’ so I committed that night after the camp.”
I am excited to announce that I committed to further my academic and volleyball careers at the University of Nebraska. Thank you to my parents, coaches and especially my sister Raegen who have made me the player and person I am today. I can’t wait to join Husker Nation!! #gbr ❤️ pic.twitter.com/UGObPMH3Qc— Bergen Reilly (@BergenReilly) July 15, 2021
I am excited to announce that I committed to further my academic and volleyball careers at the University of Nebraska. Thank you to my parents, coaches and especially my sister Raegen who have made me the player and person I am today. I can’t wait to join Husker Nation!! #gbr ❤️ pic.twitter.com/UGObPMH3Qc
Bergen will be joined by the No. 1 recruit in her class, Harper Murray of Michigan. Bergen met Murray during the U18 World Championship last fall, where they became close friends, and their bond grew even more at this year’s Pan Am Cup.
Murray, who was named Best Spiker at the Pan Am Cup, roomed with Bergen during their first weekend in Tulsa, and they both played alongside fellow Nebraska recruit Andi Jackson.
“Our relationship really grew there,” Bergen says. “I think we’ve always had a pretty good connection on the court. I think it’s just kind of a natural connection there. I can’t wait to see where that all goes at Nebraska.”
Bergen played at the club level with Kairos Volleyball, leading Kairos 16 Adidas to the Premier Division title at the AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships in Orlando last year. She earned MVP honors for her contributions to the title run, which was the program’s first at the Premier Division, the second-highest level.
“Kairos has been huge for me, too. I’ve pretty much always played up,” Bergen says. “There’s only been one year that I played with my age group, so I think that was really good for me just to kind of let me be around people that were going to challenge me and push me and play the game at a different speed than I would in my age group. I think that just forced me to grow faster and got me to where I am.”
Bergen credits Kairos Volleyball Club Director Mitch Lunning, who coaches the setters, as one of her key mentors, along with Hecht and former O’Gorman coach Emily McCourt.
“He taught me everything I know about setting,” Bergen says about Lunning. “I definitely think those three have all been huge for me.”
Bergen has always been fascinated by former Wisconsin star Sydney Hilley, whose calm personality mirrors her own. But since she committed to the Huskers, she’s focused on how Nebraska senior setter/defensive specialist Nicklin Hames runs the offense.
“She started her freshman year, and I think that’s the goal,” Bergen says. “Just seeing what she does right and how I can learn from that and hopefully transfer that over to my play, too.”
Bergen has also played for the Knights’ girls basketball team, which won a state title last season, but she won’t be a part of the team this season as she plans to finish up high school in December to begin her college career a semester early.
For now, she’s focused on leading O’Gorman to a third-consecutive state championship, a feat that’s never never been achieved in South Dakota’s Class AA. Hecht believes Bergen is ready to become the team’s go-to attacker in 2022 and take on a bigger role as an outside hitter, but he knows teams will be keying in on her.
With versatility and experience on her side, Bergen is poised to rise to the occasion.
“She’ll be a huge weapon,” Hecht says. “I think that’ll be somewhere she’s going to learn as she goes, and I think she’ll hit the ground running pretty quickly. But she’ll bring that intensity, and it’s good for her and our gym for everyone to see that willingness of like, ‘Yeah, I want to play somewhere else because I want to do what we can to win.’
“I think that shows a lot about who she is. She wants to win, and she’ll do whatever it takes.”
Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.