Aqsa School girls volleyball heads to playoffs — without a gym


Last fall, the varsity girls volleyball team at Asqa School in Bridgeview made it to the Illinois High School Association regionals, but lost. This year, the team is heading into the playoffs, hoping to go all the way, but it continues to face one big hurdle: It still doesn’t have a gym.

In fact, the nonprofit Islamic school has been without a proper gymnasium for physical education classes or after-school sports since it was built in 1986.

Volleyball coach Jeanine Askar, an alum of Aqsa School, started coaching last year. The season was successful despite the lack of resources, but the team didn’t use it as an excuse.

“Whatever we had to do, we did to get by. We would go outside; we’d go to parks when weather permitted,” she said. “And if it wasn’t, we’d practice in our hallway, which would be horrible because the height isn’t great for volleyball.”

Principal Tammie Ismail, herself a graduate of Aqsa, the first Islamic school established in Illinois, said the team has been able to improvise in better ways. The team, known as the Aqsa Legends, started renting space at the local Oak Lawn Park District Community Pavilion last season for practices and to host home games and will continue doing so this year.

She said that while the pavilion is “not terribly far from the school,” about a five-minute drive, it’s still an extra step for everyone involved.

“There’s a lot of commitment that I think our parents and students put into being a part of our volleyball team that probably kids from other schools would just totally take for granted, like walking to the gym at the end of the day for your practices,” Ismail said. “It’s something that we’ve found ways to make work.”

The Aqsa School volleyball team walks across their school parking lot to their last game of the regular season at the Universal School in Bridgeview on Oct. 5, 2023.

If the pavilion is unavailable, the team will still practice in the back of the school building, where there is a sports court that was built a few years ago, after the school was able to secure a health grant. The pavilion is used for practices once or twice a week, depending on availability, for about an hour, and the team reserves the space to host home games.

“If we wanted to practice, there were always factors for it,” said Amira Froukh, who graduated in June. “If you want to go to the pavilion, you had to schedule it and get a ride. If you wanted to play outside in the sports court, you had to have good weather and we had to set up the volleyball net ourselves. If you wanted to play downstairs, you have to play lightly and control the noises.”

Ismail said the school’s building has always had room for improvement to its infrastructure. When the facility was built, the classrooms and science labs were given priority, Ismail said, and there was also a decision to build a swimming pool, which chipped away at most of the funding.

“Especially in an all-girls environment, offering a place where you could swim just seemed like a really special thing to do,” Ismail said. “And the intention, I think, eventually was to add a third floor and a gymnasium, but being a nonprofit and working entirely off tuition and donations, we just haven’t gotten there.”

Aqsa School volleyball player Gisele Arouri hits the ball over the net during the team’s last game of the regular season at the Universal School in Bridgeview on Oct. 5, 2023.

While building a gym has been a goal in the past, the school’s fundraising arm has made it a priority this year.

“I think we’ve come to a point now where we want to refocus on that, especially having that win from last year, it really showed what our girls can do, and we just want to build on that momentum,” Ismail said.

The school is coed from pre-K through elementary, while the middle school and high school grades are all girls.

Askar said that although the players took the haphazard playing locations in stride, it was hard for them not to compare themselves with other schools.

“It encourages them and shows them they’re just as good as anybody, but they get frustrated, don’t get me wrong,” Askar said. “Because we go to different schools and their gymnasiums are amazing, and then we come back and it’s like, ‘Well, we have a multipurpose room.’”

Sophomore Noor Saleh said she’s hungry to move up to the next level, hoping to get closer to a leadership role on the team.

“I feel like ever since we won regionals, we kind of have some credit now,” Saleh said. “Yeah, we’re a small private school, but it’s really nice to be known for all the hard work and dedication we put into our sport.”

Ismail explained that Aqsa, while a private school, is eligible to advance to some of the IHSA regionals and sectionals once the season ends. She said the school’s Model U.N. team also fares pretty well each year. And other athletics are starting to pick up, too.

Aqsa School volleyball players Dania Abdallah, from left, Laila Kohnke, Gisele Arouri and Coach Jeanine Askar pray with the rest of their team before their home game at Oak Lawn Park District Community Pavilion on Sept. 5, 2023.
Aqsa School volleyball player Taleen Abunajim warms up before the team’s last game of the regular season at the Universal School in Bridgeview on Oct. 5, 2023.

“We’ve never gotten this far before, so this was huge for us,” she said. “We were really, really thrilled — great sportsmanship, a great coach, and collaboration and hard work are what got them there.”

Ismail said some community members disagree with the school spending money on rental fees at various locations so the volleyball team can compete, and instead suggest using more resources toward academics.

“But we’re like, ‘No, athletics is extremely important, especially for girls,’” Ismail said. “We don’t want this to be something that gets cut. And believe me, when it comes down to school board meetings and looking at priorities, athletics is not always right up there. But it’s been very important for us never to let those programs get on the chopping block.”

At sectionals last season, Aqsa “got swept” by Cisna Park High School, Askar said, laughing. But the experience was monumental, she said.

“They were a little disheartened because the seniors were leaving and were like, ‘We’re never going to win now,’” Askar said. “I said, ‘No, don’t put that in your head.’ Let’s work this summer; let’s start early. I’m going to have them work in the sand, so this way, I could build their stamina, build their footwork to get a little faster.”

Aqsa School volleyball coach Jeanine Askar asks if Jeanine Abedelal is ready to go into the game during the third set of their last game of the regular season at the Universal School in Bridgeview on Oct. 5, 2023.

The volleyball players at Aqsa wear a modified uniform when competing — long Adidas pants and a long-sleeved shirt under the school T-shirt. Usually, students at other schools don’t bat an eye when the Aqsa girls walk in for games, but Askar sometimes said they feel othered when competing at schools in smaller towns.

“Most of my girls wear hijab, and I wear hijab; and I don’t know what their intentions are when they look at us, but you know, it feels very different in those smaller towns who are not used to seeing many different people,” Askar said. “But I just want them to see that we’re just like them. There’s no difference between us. My girls love the sport just like your girls love the sport. We’re here to play together to have a great time.”

In addition to volleyball, Aqsa competes in girls basketball and cross-country.

Saleh, who transferred from a public school to Aqsa as a freshman, said the camaraderie at the all-girls institution with a high school student body of just 70 has been life-changing.

“I think I’m more confident now and I feel like other people understand me to a point where kids in public school didn’t,” she said. “And I actually can’t wait for the school year to start. Our team has such a good environment. We’re all like a little family playing together and learning from each other. There are no bad vibes.”

Saleh said the team has what it takes, gym or no gym.

“If we did it once, let’s see what we could do (this) year,” she said.

The team won its last regular season game within the Metropolitan Prep Conference on Thursday against Universal School in Bridgeview and is now advancing to a playoff tournament. While Askar said the team’s “chances are high” to win another title, she also knows it’s always been about more than just winning.

“Truly for me, it’s not about the win,” Askar said. “It’s how the sisterhood was built together and how they’ve grown together. It’s been an amazing growth as a team. We’ve always been the underdogs, and with everything, I hope the Legends follow through.”


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