NEW PALESTINE — It’s been almost three weeks since New Palestine’s historic run in the volleyball state tournament ended at the Jasper Semistate, but for head coach Kelli Whitaker the ride hasn’t stopped.
Instead, Whitaker’s and her team’s achievements continue to be recognized following a memorable October as her Dragons marched to the program’s first Class 3A final four appearance.
Last week, Whitaker was honored as the Indiana Coaches of Girls Sports Association’s 3A South Coach of the Year while New Palestine junior outside hitter Allison Dennemann was selected to the ICGSA 3A All-State First Team.
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A few days later, Whitaker added another honor by being chosen to lead the ICGSA 3A/4A All-Stars in this Sunday’s showcase at Lawrence North High School along with Walter Pauly (Christian Academy) and Brooke Stamper (Covenant Christian).
“No, things haven’t slowed down at all,” said Whitaker, who was preparing for Sunday’s three-match event starting at 1 p.m. “I didn’t even know this would be a possibility, but I’m very thankful to have the opportunity. It’s pretty cool to say I was an All-Star coach.”
Whitaker can now say she completed the trifecta by being named the 2016 Daily Reporter Volleyball Coach of the Year as voted upon by the county coaches and sports staff.
A 2006 New Palestine graduate and former volleyball standout, Whitaker, who played at Indiana State, guided the seventh-ranked Dragons to new heights in her fourth year at the helm.
The team finished 27-11 overall this season en route to capturing the program’s first sectional title in 27 years and first regional championship with a 3-1 win against No. 11 Cardinal Ritter.
At the Jasper Semistate, the Dragons notched their first-ever semifinal victory with an unforgettable tug-of-war against powerhouse Northview 3-2 before losing to state runner-up Providence 3-0 in the finals.
The best tournament performance in program history, Whitaker credits her assistant coaches Samantha Padgett, Bill Rumley and Scott Hedrick for the success. The numbers, however, don’t lie.
The Dragons are 81-55 in Whitaker’s four seasons and have posted 52 wins the past two years.
With her two leading scorers in Dennemann and fellow junior Mia Long both returning next season, the Dragons and Whitaker believe there’s more yet to come.
In your opinion, what was the turning point for this group?
A: I think winning sectional was the turning point. All year long and even in the summer our goal was to win sectional, and that’s about as far as we talked about for awhile. Then as we got later into the season, looking at the bracket and how we were playing, we really felt we could win regional, too. That seed kind of got planted, and I think finally winning that sectional gave us a lot of energy and momentum and also the belief that we could win those types of big games.
How special was it to have two junior leaders like Dennemann and Long, especially in the postseason?
A: It’s incredible really. Mia was just on fire that regional night. That was the best game she’s ever played. She just carried us. She really did. She had no hitting errors that game and 30 kills. I still can’t get over how amazing she played.
With Allison, a lot of people come up to me often and ask if she is graduating. I always had to tell them, “no, she’s just a junior.” When they hear that, they’re usually disappointed. As a coach when you have to face good players like her, you always hope they’re seniors because you hate having to keep seeing them. I’m glad to have two of those types of kids on my team.
What was the most memorable part of the tournament run for you?
A: The whole ride was awesome, but I feel like regional was probably the most fun for us and most memorable because we had already accomplished our goal. To win that regional was the icing on top. It was such a thrilling game, and then we did it again at semistate. Five-set match and to be in the final four was pretty unbelievable.
You being a New Palestine grad, to achieve the success you had, did it make this season even more significant to you?
A: Absolutely. This is my home. It’s my dream job. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve been in their shoes. I didn’t get to accomplish championships as a player as much as I wanted it, so to be able to help them reach that goal was extra special to me.
When I was a player I loved to play. When I became a coach, I thought I would miss playing, but I really love to coach. This was really special, and to get it done with Bill, who coached me when I was younger, that was great, too.
How high is the bar set now moving forward for the Dragons?
A: It’s really high. Our expectation this year was to win a sectional, and now we want to win state. It changed quickly and it needed to happen. Steve Shondell at Ball State says, the body achieves what the mind believes. I totally agree with that, 100 percent.
We had to be able to believe in ourselves in order to win those games. It’s taken a while for us to believe, but now that we’ve had some success, I feel I can come in and say, “we’re going to win a state championship,” and they’re going to believe it. I know they’re going to put in the extra work. It just took winning a sectional and getting that off our back. I think the sky is the limit now.