NEW PALESTINE — After erasing 27 years of sectional frustration and winning the program’s first regional title last season, contentment would be understandable, if not unavoidable.
Not for the New Palestine volleyball team or head coach Kelli Whitaker, who guided the Dragons to a 27-11 record and a Class 3A final four finale in 2016.
While using last season’s success as a motivator, the Dragons aren’t resting on their laurels — they have plans of a repeat and hopefully more.
“We feel excitement. I think what we have now is a belief. I don’t really know if we feel that pressure, but now we believe we can go far and we believe we’re a good team,” Whitaker remarked on her squad’s focus. “That’s what I’ve been trying to build this culture on. Believing in ourselves and being super competitive with every team we play. I think we’re there now.”
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The timing is ideal as the Dragons moved up to 4A this offseason due to enrollment after the Indiana High School Athletic Association announced its classification and sectional realignments for volleyball.
Thrust into the 4A field, New Palestine is now positioned on the same state tournament path as Hoosier Heritage Conference rivals Mt. Vernon and Greenfield-Central in Sectional 9. Conference foe Pendleton Heights in addition to Connersville and Richmond complete the sectional.
“We have to prove ourselves again. Maybe there would be more pressure if we were 3A, but now that we’re 4A, we know we’re hanging with the big dogs,” Whitaker said. “Every single team in 4A is very good.”
The Dragons are equally as strong, returning four of six starters to their lineup in order to make their mark in the state’s largest classification.
The key cogs in their pressure attack, once again, will be powered by senior outside hitters Allison Dennemann and Mia Long.
Dennemann led the state with 700 kills and added 476 digs, 54 aces and 52 blocks for the Dragons last season. The University of the Pacific recruit was named ICGSA First Team All-State (3A), an Indiana Junior All-Star and All-Hoosier Heritage Conference.
Long had 420 kills and 434 digs, 43 aces and 23 blocks. She was named an All-Hoosier Heritage Conference honorable mention.
Junior libero Lydia Jones, senior right-side hitter Morgan Willard and senior middle blocker Jordan Brittsan join the prolific duo as returners.
Newcomer Jesi Hall, a freshman middle blocker, will replace graduated senior Audrey Edwards, while junior Sydney Robertson will fill the void at setter left behind by Kara Morris, who recorded 1,134 assists in 2016. Morris finished her four-year varsity career with more than 2,600 assists.
“Kara was a phenomenal player, and a lot of people would come up to me and tell me how fun Kara was to watch because she could set the ball from all the way across the court,” Whitaker said. “Sydney has been able to step in. She has a different game than Kara. They’re not the same type of player. Sydney is a little bit smaller and quicker, but they both have really nice hands.”
Robertson put her skills on display this weekend in the Dragons’ opener against Scecina Memorial, dishing out 40 assists. Her chemistry with the team’s top hitters was established this summer when the Dragons went 12-0 as a group.
Robertson’s perfectly placed passes led to 22 kills by Dennemann in the team’s match on Saturday with 15 through the first two sets alone.
“(Sydney) is very quick, and she’s a good jumper. She’s kind of small, but she can block,” Whitaker said. “She’s a good player.”
Jones will be vital to the defense after posting 457 digs as a sophomore last season. She reached down for 12 of them against Scecina Memorial during the Dragons’ 3-0 win.
“We are extremely athletic and talented. It’s just a matter of working together and having that team chemistry,” Whitaker said. “What we have that will help us even more this year is that experience. Experience going deep into the tournament and experience of being a really good team. I think that is only going to help us and having the leadership of Ally and Mia.”