GREENFIELD — The numbers on the scoreboard meant little to Kelli Whitaker.
On Saturday afternoon after her New Palestine volleyball team lost in the regional semifinal, her focus was fixated on five — the exact number of seniors the New Palestine volleyball team will lose this offseason.
“I’m not suppose to cry right? I just care a lot about them,” the New Palestine head coach said while brushing aside a stream of tears. “They were such a huge part of our success.”
Despite falling to Lawrence North 3-0 during the Class 4A Greenfield-Central Regional, 27-25, 25-13, 25-16, the victories and triumphs amassed prior far outweighed the heartbreak as the Dragons’ season ended at 27-7.
Since their freshmen season in 2014, New Palestine’s senior group has won 93 matches, including back-to-back 27-win campaigns, 25 wins in 2015 and consecutive sectional championships.
Last year’s breakthrough in Class 3A marked the program’s first sectional title since 1989, leading to a first regional crown and a final four appearance.
This fall, their sectional was the first in 4A, a new bar set by their senior team leaders.
“It’s weird. I’ve been a part of this team for four years, and the five seniors, we’ve grown up together. It’s going to be weird not seeing them every day and next year when we all go away,” New Palestine senior outside hitter Allison Dennemann said. “We’ve all done really well here and I think set a good example for how we want our team to represent New Pal.”
Their gritty style and trademark resilience mixed with obvious talent was on display in their final match as a team.
The Dragons came out firing, holding a brief lead early in the first set against Lawrence North before the Wildcats were able to survive a back-and-forth marathon.
New Palestine led 16-12 at one point before the Wildcats charged back behind their sparkplug Lauren Matthews, a Western Kentucky recruit, to tie the match five times.
The Dragons reclaimed the lead 25-24, but Lawrence North went on a 3-0 run to win. In the next set, the Wildcats (18-18) turned a 3-0 deficit into a 12-3 lead and in the third they never trailed.
“In serve receive I can usually find someone to pick on or on defense I could find something, but I just couldn’t find a hole today,” Whitaker said. “In the first match, I felt like we competed pretty well. We were up early but then kind of let them come back in, and we just couldn’t close the deal.”
Dennemann, a University of the Pacific recruit, tried to offset the Wildcats’ attack with a team-high 20 kills, six digs and two blocks, but the team struggled to find consistency against Lawrence North’s fierce net defense.
“In the second set, we just weren’t ourselves. I felt like we were already defeated, and that’s not how we normally play. I was trying to find a way to dig them out of that and motivate them, but I wasn’t able to,” Whitaker said. “They started serving us short and then were blocking us like crazy. We couldn’t find a way around that.”
In the final set, Dennemann, fittingly, hammer down the Dragons’ final two points with kills, her 572nd this season and 2,184th in her career. She will graduate as the program’s all-time career leader in kills.
“There was a lot of hesitation on our part, and it just wasn’t our day. It stinks that it was at the end of the season, but it is what it is,” Dennemann said. “I feel like we could have done a better job just regrouping and putting (the first set) behind us.”
Putting the run the program put together the past two season will be difficult to forget with the departures of Dennemann, Mia Long, Jordan Brittsan, Morgan Willard and Katie Bancroft.
“I think the young’uns are going to be good and step it up,” Dennemann said. “They’ll hopefully continue the legacy.”