On November 11, 2017, several members of a then rather untested and wide-eyed group of Newark High School volleyball players sat with tears rolling down their faces.
During a postgame press conference after the Lady Norsemen had lost the second of two matches at the Class 1A State Finals to Durand in the third-place contest at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena, the girls from NHS were obviously disappointed.
Sophomore libero Meggie Scott — fighting back sniffles but with a fierce look of determination — confidently announced that her team would be back again to Redbird in 2018 and would be sitting at the same podium, this time with tears of happiness instead of sorrow.
Scott got step one of her scenario correct after she and her talented teammates qualified for the 1A state championship round of four less than 365 calendar days later, vanquishing that same Durand team in a three-set supersectional thriller last Friday. That sent the Bulldogs packing and the Lady Norsemen back to state for a chance at redemption and a renewed hope of attending a championship press briefing this time around.
Newark (38-2) enters the 1A Final Four as the clear favorite against youthful and untested Grayville (27-9), so very similar to what the Lady Norsemen were just a year ago. Game time Saturday is set for 9 a.m. in the opening semifinal matchup at Redbird with the upstart Bison.
"I just remember being at that press conference so sad and disappointed, and a couple of days later reading an article that said our dreams were dashed for now, and this year kids, next year veterans," said Scott, who set the NHS single-season record for digs in 2018 with 513 and counting. "It's true, almost all of us were at state last year, and we're ready and determined to bring home the championship this time around.
"We have some unfinished business that's for sure."
Newark's veteran coach of 18 seasons, Tonya Grayson (461-158), couldn't concur more.
"We're battle-tested, and this year I can also say that we're pressure-tested having played some incredible volleyball against some amazing ballclubs and still have lost only two three-set matches," Grayson said. "I told the girls about going back to state, we need to own it this year as the team to beat. In 1A, we're the only team returning to the Final Four for a second straight season. There should be no newness, no more starry eyes at the bright lights and the big arena.
"Go in there and leave no doubt that you're the 1A champions. I believe with the ability and confidence of this group we can surely do that and come away happy this time."
But before any of those dreams can be fulfilled will come the semifinal contest with Grayville, a school of only 86 students and a team consisting of just one senior, one junior, four sophomores and six freshmen.
"We've had some good games and some bad ones too, being such a young ballclub, and we know Newark is an excellent team based on their record and the great schools they've beaten this year, not only in 1A but in 2A and 3A also," said GHS second-year coach Alyssa Schroeder, who is a 2009 Grayville graduate. "I guess we're just kind of like Newark was last year, entering the state finals being the underdogs. Seeing that Newark was able to overcome that and get back to state for the second year in a row is very impressive.
"They're definitely the favorites with some great players like we've seen in videos, especially a player like their main hitter (Madi Malone), who is amazing. We're just happy to be able to step up and play a team like Newark in the semifinals."
The all-stater Malone struggled as a freshman at the finals in 2017, where Newark finished fourth. But she's coming into the 2018 Final Four after producing an astonishing 31 kills in the supers versus Durand, ready to reach much greater heights at Redbird this time as a sophomore. Malone has set single-campaign records for NHS this year so far in terms of kills (474) and services aces (78).
"We are so much more experienced having been to the state finals last year, and we don't want to settle for fourth place again," Malone said. We're prepared to compete much better, and we have the fire in our veins to win both matches and win a championship."
If the Lady Norsemen get by Grayville, they will have to battle the winner of the second semifinal matchup on Friday.
Hartsburg-Emden (35-4) will take on Decatur St. Teresa (28-10), both of whom Newark defeated in straight sets during regular-season tournament play earlier in the year. Of the big four Newark standouts along with Malone and Scott, junior middle hitter Mattie Chapman (204 kills, 55 blocks) and senior setter Olivia Nelson (school record 896 assists) won't be leaving anything to chance in their pursuit of a state championship.
"We need to take it point by point, and we've connected so well as a team this year, so I know we will do the same at state," Chapman said.
"It's big business for us to finish at Redbird and win a championship this time," Nelson said. "I'm envisioning lots of smiles, lots of good times when Saturday rolls around with tears of joy instead of the tears of disappointment that we experienced last season."