The village of Leland and its unit school district each have been comfort zones for Julia Niles.
Her grandparents and parents long have resided in the northern La Salle County town, and it’s where Niles has lived her entire life. She’s attended Leland grade and high schools (they’re in the same building), and her mother, Andrea, works in the main office.
“I like how I know everyone in my class. I can relate to them because we’ve known each other forever,” said the 17-year-old Leland High School senior.
Daughter of Andrea and Brian Niles and sister to Jake Niles, Julia is vice president of the Leland senior class, vice president of student council, vice president of National Honor Society, a member of Academic Bowl, and an actor in the school play.
“Most anything you can do, I like to be involved,” Niles said.
“She is the student we all want our younger students to look up to as she is dedicated to academics, sports, band, student council, Academic Bowl, Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering, and the high school play, just to name a few things. Leland will miss her after graduation. She is one of those ‘go-to’ students,” Mandy Hawk, Leland High business teacher and volleyball coach, said in an email interview.
Sports are a big part of her life — she’s played volleyball, basketball and softball all four years of high school — and when that world was altered, it was a shock that required adjustment.
Last year, school boards for both Leland and neighboring Earlville decided to split some of the sports the unit districts previously shared in a co-op agreement.
That meant in 2018-19 Leland would have its own volleyball team for the first time in several years. Last season, as Leland-Earlville, the squad had great success, earning a Class 1A regional title.
Yet this year, as Leland, Niles was the only returning upperclassman. Three sophomores also were back, but additional students were needed to fill the roster.
The split may not sound like much to a casual observer, but for Niles, the impact was huge.
“It was really hard for me when I heard some of the sports would be separated,” she said.
Instead of being one of the leaders on a good volleyball team, Niles found herself as the veteran on an inexperienced squad.
“I had to become more of a leader. A lot of the girls who went out this year hadn’t played in a long time. So I had to teach them,” she said.
“It turned out a lot better than expected. The girls learned a lot and hopefully will improve next year.”
The Leland Lady Panthers improved during the year and ended up with an 8-17 record. Hawk noticed the upgrades made by her captain and her teammates.
“She wore the green jersey with pride though and kept frustrations to herself, conveying a positive attitude with the rest of the team even though she had to watch her old team (Earlville) have a very successful season,” the coach said.
Niles ended up as an all-Little Ten Conference selection. Earlville’s Lady Raiders defeated Leland both times the teams played.
“It was really weird for me, being across the net from girls I’d become best friends with. Sometimes we’d look at each other and laugh,” she said, reflecting on those matches.
While volleyball required adjustment, Niles’ schoolwork and extracurricular activities didn’t. She remains a top student and keeps busy when not in class.
“Julia has been involved throughout high school in both athletics and extracurricular activities. It takes a special person to be successful academically while meeting the expectations of these outside demands. Julia handles it like a pro. She is very organized, responsible, and dedicated,” Ann Smith, Leland English teacher, said in a phone interview.
Niles captained Leland-Earlville’s girls basketball team. Coming up next will be participating on the Earlville-Leland softball team.
Between sports, academics and extracurriculars, Niles has been focusing on what she will do for college. Again, adjustment was needed.
She was interested in pursing a veterinary medicine career, especially after hanging around her grandmother’s home, where there were horses.
“In veterinary medicine you have to deal with injured or sick animals. I didn’t think I could do that,” Niles said.
After she sprained an ankle during volleyball season of 2017, a sports medicine workshop at Plano High School piqued Niles’ interest in that field.
“Just seeing how (the athletic trainer) spent a regular day and what she had to do really interested me,” she explained.
Niles planned to take a sports medicine course this year at Indian Valley Vocational Center, Sandwich, but couldn’t fit it into her schedule. She gained further interest in the field after visiting the sports medicine facilities at Aurora University.
Aurora, Carthage College and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater are among the colleges in which Niles is interested. Sports medicine as a career is “almost for sure,” she said, although optometry also is an option.
Participating on an intercollegiate team also is an option, especially if she takes up sports medicine. Niles also wonders what she might do without playing a sport.
“I don’t know if I would be able to not be involved,” she said. “I’m not sure what I’ll do without all the activities. I will study more.”
Niles is looking forward to college, yet wonders what life will be like outside her comfort zone.
“It goes back and forth. Sometimes I feel I’m ready to go and move on. But sometimes it’s tough to think this would be my last volleyball game and the last time in (a certain) classroom,” she said.