NEW PALESTINE — Belief. A year ago, that one word propelled the New Palestine volleyball team to new heights. From erasing a 27-year sectional title drought to a Class 3A final four state tournament appearance in 2016, it was a collective pursuit, four years in the making since head coach Kelli Whitaker took over the program in 2013.
This season, the Dragons have adopted a new mantra, a new identity, Whitaker said, and it’s been ingrained from Day 1.
“I think that we have believed in ourselves all year. Last year that was kind of our focus: believe you can do it. Believe we’re great,” said Whitaker, who owns a 108-61 record in five seasons at the helm. “It was sort of training them to have the confidence in themselves. This year, they’ve had it. We’ve gone out every single match, knowing we can win.”
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It’s this mindset which has the team in position to repeat the past while also setting a new standard.
After claiming their second consecutive and first 4A sectional title in school history last weekend with a 9-0 sweep, the Dragons (27-6) will vie for a potential second straight regional championship this Saturday at Greenfield-Central.
The Dragons open against Lawrence North (17-17) in the Greenfield-Central Regional semifinals at noon, following the first semifinal match between Roncalli (26-7) and No. 2 Avon (33-3) at 10 a.m. The championship is set for 8 p.m.
“It’s a whole new thing. You’re in a whole other level, so we’re trying to keep our excitement down and stay focused,” New Palestine senior Allison Dennemann remarked on the upcoming 4A regional. “We definitely came out with a stronger mentality at the start of the year, and we expected to come out and compete in our sectional and regional. We expect more out of ourselves.”
At sectional, the Dragons didn’t just presume, they delivered, defeating Richmond 3-0 in the quarterfinals and Pendleton Heights 3-0 in the championship. Their 3-0 victory against rival Mt. Vernon in the semifinals, however, proved the catalyst forward and back.
New Palestine lost to Mt. Vernon 3-2 on its senior night to end the regular season, which didn’t sit well with Whitaker or the team. The unexpected loss brought the Dragons closer together as they barreled towards their postseason rematch and ignited their swagger.
“We knew they were going to be a tough game, and we knew we would most likely face them once we took Richmond. We were ready to face them because of the game we had at the end of the season,” New Palestine senior Mia Long said.
New Palestine trailed the first set against the defending 4A sectional champion Mt. Vernon Marauders before winning 26-24, 25-19, 25-17. In years past, the team might have lost it’s confidence, never having beaten the Marauders in Whitaker’s tenure, but their trust in themselves, each other and the process were key.
“I think our chemistry is really strong this year,” Long said. “I remember in the summer we discussed our team chemistry and for us to flow together in a game. We knew that was going to be a big part of our game this season, and it’s worked.”
The roster’s talent has been undeniable, and it will be essential against Lawrence North, which knocked off the defending 4A state champion Cathedral Fighting Irish 3-0 to win the Sectional 10 title last Saturday.
Dennamann, a University of the Pacific recruit, ranks fifth in the state with 547 kills this season along with 75 aces, 305 digs and 45 total blocks. She has a school-record 2,159 kills in her career in 4,653 attempts.
Long, who finished last season with 420 kills and 434 digs, has stayed on pace, posting 326 digs and 414 kills through 101 sets. Junior Sydney Robertson, a first-year starter, has 1,050 assists, while defensive specialist Lydia Jones, a junior, has 381 digs. Senior Jordan Brittsan has been fierce in the middle, leading the team with 54 total blocks.
“It’s great knowing that if you give the ball to any of our girls, it’s going to be hit hard or tipped to a spot where people aren’t,” Long said. “It’s great knowing if we go to the middle, we get a kill, if we go to the outside, we get a kill. We’re all strong individually, but together we can be even stronger.”
Lawrence North touts their own dynamic duo in seniors Lizzie Beasley (415 kills) and Lauren Matthews (350 kills). The Wildcats have four players with 100 or more kills and have 279 total blocks with Matthews recording 131.
“We talked about how we made history as the first 4A sectional champions for our school, so to win a regional, we are going to have to beat some really amazing teams,” Whitaker said. “It’s a tough regional. Lawrence North has a lot of history with volleyball, same with Avon and Roncalli. It’s going to be a battle.”
Lawrence North is seeking its first-ever regional championship, while Roncalli is chasing its 13th overall and first since 2014. Two-time state champion Avon has won seven straight regional titles, a streak that begin in 2010.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game. We know (Lawrence North) is good. I know a lot of their players are really strong, and strong girls make a strong team,” Long said. “We know we have to play well to beat them. We believe we can win.”
Class 4A Greenfield-Central Regional
M1: Roncalli (26-7) vs. Avon (33-3), 10 a.m.
M2: Lawrence North (17-17) vs. New Palestine (27-6), noon
M3: Winner of M1 vs. Winner of M2, 8 p.m.
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