In her junior season, Brynn Nieukirk has proven to be one of the better outside hitters in the Mid-Illini Conference.

She leads Washington with 243 kills and is not far behind the team lead with 43 blocks.

Her play has helped the Panthers with a winning (19-4, 7-1) record and second place in the Mid-Illini Conference standings, behind Pekin.

However, this season has been different for Nieukirk’s presence on the volleyball court.

The junior has embraced the leadership role for the Panthers after a summer in Las Vegas.

In the spring, Nieukirk was selected to a team in the USA Volleyball High Performance program.

The program is considered the “pipeline” for athletes looking to reach the elite level of volleyball and possibly have a chance to play for Team USA one day.

She was named to the USA Junior National A2 team, which included players born from 1998-1999.

She traveled to Las Vegas in August to train and compete with some of the best high school volleyball players in the country.

“It was pretty intimidating,” Nieukirk said. “It was interesting to play with different people from different areas and to see the difference between the clubs and high school teams.”

For the week, Nieukirk attended two 2 1/2 hour training sessions per day where coaches critiqued her game.

“It was very intense,” Nieukirk said. “There was probably about 50 coaches there. They would give us feedback on every drill we did, so it was nice to have that.”

Not only did Nieukirk develop her game as an outside hitter, but the experience helped propel her into a leadership role this season.

“Out there I didn’t really know anyone, so I had to talk to a lot of people to get to know them and how they play,” Nieukirk said. “Now, I kind of get the feel for being more of a leader and telling people what to do and where to go on the court.”

Despite Pekin’s current undefeated record, the Panthers still have a chance to repeat as Mid-Illini Conference champions.

The Dragons sport 22 straight victories, including a win at Washington, but the Panthers haven’t shown a problem defeating many teams.

“We all have a really good connection on the floor,” Nieukirk said. “We really work well together.”

Pekin may have been the Panthers biggest test handing one of Washington its four losses this season.

The two teams battled it out in a three-set thriller at Washington Sept. 20, the only conference loss of the season for Washington.

Washington will have a chance to even the season series October 13 at Dawson Hawkins Gymnasium.

“We basically have to be prepared for anything,” Nieukirk said. “I know (Pekin’s) Hannah Thompson really well. She’s an all around really good player. We have to shut her down in the front row because she’s not very tall.”

For now, Nieukirk and the Panthers will try to maintain pace with the Dragons in Mid-Illini Conference games.