NEW PALESTINE — Kelli Whitaker gathered the eager, young players into a huddle, then took a volleyball and tossed it gently into the air before showing the youngsters how to properly push it skyward with their fingertips.

It was just one of the many lessons Whitaker, New Palestine’s head volleyball coach, tried to get across to the kids during a recent volleyball camp at the high school.

More than 100 area youngsters signed up for the week-long camp, up by more than 30 participants from last year.

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One of the reasons for the increase could be due to the fact Whitaker has helped put the New Palestine volleyball program on the map.

Coming off the school’s first regional title last year and the team’s first sectional title in 27 years, volleyball is a hot topic around town with several returning and future players on the roster.

Whitaker, 29, is heading into her fifth season as the Dragons head coach and expects even bigger and better things for her volleyball team in the future.

“When I started coaching I knew I wanted to build a program,” Whitaker said. “I knew I wanted to build something long term with high character and class.”

Whitaker, a New Palestine graduate, played volleyball and softball for the Dragons before playing college volleyball at Indiana State University. She teaches kindergarten at Brandywine Elementary School and has a real love for the community and the students in it.

Couple those elements with the athletic talent on the team and it’s a perfect combination for success, she said.

“Last year was so much fun and it was new ground for us,” Whitaker said. “We can’t wait for the season to start.”

Whitaker is a huge fan of her former New Palestine head softball coach, Ed Marcum, who taught her how to win and lead a team, she said. Whitaker helped Marcum win his first state championship back in 2004 as a player. Both coaches know the local youth league helps feed the softball program.

That was lacking in volleyball until Whitaker helped implement a youth volleyball club called Dragons Club Volleyball, a couple years ago. The club gets young kids excited about the game. They play in the winter after the volleyball season is over to help the players develop their skills.

“Some of my girls who are now seniors were some of the first players in the club,” Whitaker said. “It’s made a huge difference.”

Jordan Brittsan, a senior, is one of those players. She credits her coach with motivating the high school team to work on its skills year round.

“We don’t start on our game in the fall when school starts,” Brittsan said. “We start right after spring break and work all through the summer, and it’s made a real difference.”

The players can see Whitaker has a lot of passion for the game and enjoys pushing the girls to be their best, Brittsan said.

Another one of Whitaker’s top players coming back this fall is Allison Dennemann, a senior. She was named to the MaxPreps All-American third team for medium-sized high schools last year.

She had a 6.2 kills per game average, as well as averaging four digs per game, served 54 aces during the season and helped the team finish with a 27-11 record.

Dennemann had 700 kills to lead the Dragons to the semistate semifinals of the Class 3A tournament and will be a huge part of the upcoming season where expectations are high, Whitaker said.

“Now, we believe that we can do it,” Whitaker said. “That had kind of been our issue before in that we hadn’t won a sectional or a regional. But now that we have, I feel like we believe in ourselves and can compete with some of the best in the state.”

Whitaker knows the Dragons have made a name for themselves, other teams will be gunning for them, but that’s what being on top is all about, she said.

“We are kind of on the radar now,” Whitaker said. “It started a couple of years ago when we were ranked in the top 10 and now with all the success we had last season, just one game away from the state championship; we know we are going to have a target on our backs.”

Whitaker doesn’t want it any other way.

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Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or kdeer@greenfieldreporter.com.