Newark junior Mattie Chapman can now laugh about the memory.
A year ago, after the Norsemen made program history by advancing to the Class 1A state tournament for the first time, defensive specialist Morgan Richards savored her first appearance at Redbird Arena.
A day before the start of the state semifinals, the Lady Norsemen gathered for the first time on Doug Collins Court in Normal.
“Morgan goes into the middle of the court and just sits, like a little girl, on the floor and stares at all the lights and everything,” Chapman recalled. “She stared like she was a new human to this world or something. It was pretty cool.”
Nearly everything was cool about the Norsemen’s historic run to state last season, except losing both of their state games. With five of six starters back this season, Newark (38-2) is on a mission to create new memories – this time with some state wins.
The Norsemen face Grayville (27-9) in Friday’s 1A state semifinal at 9 a.m. in the program’s second trip to state.
“We’re really excited, and it’s fun to be going back to state and not have feel that starry-eyed, never-been-here before type of jitters,” Newark coach Tonya Grayson said. “The girls are excited to get back and own it. Last year, we lost both matches. This year, they want to get down there and win two matches. Everybody is pumped and excited. They are confident and ready to go and take care of business. It will be a fun weekend.”
The Bison have a tall order trying to stop Newark’s athletic and deep rotation. Grayville, which competes in the Midland Trail Conference, has only one player taller than 5-foot-8. Led by all-stater Madi Malone, the Lady Norsemen have three players with at least 200 kills, five with 100-plus digs and four with at least 40 aces.
“We learned a lot from the final four last year and were able to see where our weaknesses were, so we could make another run and have success down at Redbird Arena,” Grayson said. “The big thing with this team is we are so much more diversified and not reliant on one or two players to score for us all the time. We have four or five girls who can score at any given time and are very aggressive from the service line. This team really grew up a lot, in terms of their level of play from last year.”
The 6-foot Malone, a sophomore outside hitter, is the unquestionable star on the team. She enters the semifinal with 474 kills, 313 digs, 78 aces and 30 blocks, as the Norsemen have a nine-match winning streak. Malone erupted for 31 kills in the three-game supersectional win over Durand on Nov. 2. Malone broke her own single-season kills record and established a new program mark for aces in a season.
“Madi has developed and improved so much,” Grayson said. “Throughout the year, she’s been playing at such a high level. She’s another year smarter and wiser and become lethal out of the back row this year…Teams have a hard time stopping her from the back row.”
The 6-foot Chapman, a junior middle hitter, is another player with a big upside. She has 204 kills, 55 blocks, 23 aces and 47 digs this season. Chapman said she worked on becoming a better all-around player.
“I see the court better than last year, just visualizing everything,” she said. “A lot of us conditioned together in the summer and that helped all of us get better. That really helped us bond together and we’re more comfortable and confident this time going to state to play volleyball.”