NORMAL – Everything was suddenly falling apart for Newark early Friday morning.
In the program’s first state appearance, the Norsemen were in the midst of a Game 1 collapse against Payson-Seymour in the first Class 1A semifinal. After storming out to an 18-12 lead following a kill by heralded freshman Madi Malone, the Norsemen quickly saw their lead evaporate.
Suddenly trailing 23-21 in Game 1, junior setter Olivia Nelson, standing near the far pin, glanced over at teammate Mattie Chapman, a sophomore middle blocker, and smiled.
In fact, both players broke a smile.
“We talked that ‘let’s have fun’ because there are a lot of teams down here sitting in the arena that would trade places with us in a heartbeat,” Newark coach Tonya Grayson said.
Fun has definitely been the theme of Newark’s record-breaking season, and its first match on the hallowed court of Redbird Arena was no different. Behind a powerful hitting attack, Payson-Seymour dashed Newark’s dreams of a state championship with a 25-21, 25-13 victory in the first 1A semifinal.
The Norsemen (34-4) will play the loser of the Durand-Strasburg semifinal in Saturday’s 9 a.m. third-place game.
Suffering their first two-set loss this season, the Norsemen’s 14-match winning streak also came to an end. Malone tallied a team-high eight kills, Chapman pitched in with five kills and Nelson collected 15 assists for Newark. Meggie Scott had nine digs.
Midway through Game 1, the Norsemen were in total control.
Malone tallied four early kills and the Norsemen took advantage of multiple hitting errors by the Indians (40-1) to seize an 18-12 lead.
“We came out with fire, but when it got (18-12), I think we slacked off a little bit,” Nelson said. “Payson-Seymour (then) got more fired up. We just slacked off and made more mistakes.”
Instead of sadness and a flood of tears following the defeat, the Norsemen kept their heads up during the extended postgame conference – perhaps pointing toward a goal that might have fallen short but happy to reach a destination that arrived sooner than anticipated for a team so young.
Of Newark’s top 11 players, only two – Riane Tomsa and Mikayla Williams – are seniors.
“We are young and that’s exciting for us,” Grayson said. “We’re getting a taste of this, and what it’s like to be in the final four and experience what’s it like to play here. This is a very competitive team, and doesn’t like to lose. Sometimes you come up against an opponent that’s little better than you. That was the case this morning. I’m pretty sure I can safely say these girls are going to be very hungry.”
The Norsemen centered their game plan on stopping Payson-Seymour middle hitter Josie Stanford, who entered the semifinal with 391 kills and 48 blocks. Stanford managed just four kills, but outside hitter Kamryn Flesner puton an exhibition of big hitting on a big stage. She fueled the Indians’comeback, finishing with a game-high 12 kills.
“I was happy with the way we were able to contain (Stanford),” Grayson said. “We were overmatched on the outside size-wise. We were just smaller…Seymour was just a little more deeper than us. They have little bit more weapons than us, and that equaled the difference in the match.”
Malone said the Norsemen plan on using Friday’s loss as a learning experience, for the third-place game and beyond.
“It was so exciting to be playing at state,” Malone said. “That was a great team. We had a lot of first in the first game. In the second game, we kind of lost it because of the first loss. Even though we lost it, it was amazing experience. We made some errors, but we will learn from this and come back stronger tomorrow.”