NORMAL — Before this amazing, history-making season even started for the Newark volleyball team, veteran coach Tonya Grayson took her talented club on what's turned into an annual retreat to the Wisconsin Dells.
After finishing fourth during the 2017 Class 1A grind, the 2018 version of the Lady Norsemen decided on a theme, a somewhat secretive and basic mantra they'd carry into this year and all the way to a magical ending of an incredible campaign. Three simple letters — MTR — translated into "Make Them Remember" turned out to be the team's steadfast mission which this season's opponents, fans and observers will not soon if ever forget.
The Lady Norsemen delivered their message loud and clear Saturday morning, thrashing the Hartsburg-Emden Stags 25-16, 25-23 in the Class 1A state championship contest here at Redbird Arena in Normal. The history-making triumph completed the volleyball program's first-ever state title and second crown in NHS history, coming after the boys basketball championship in 2011. It was also Newark's fifth state trophy overall, as the Lady Norsemen reached an awe-inspiring, school-record total of 40 wins against only two losses by letting the MTR motto guide them on their magic carpet ride into the rarefied air that most schools and teams can only dream of.
"Before we start our seasons, we always go to Wisconsin for a couple of days where we set team goals, and that's where we came up with MTR this year," Grayson said. "Right out of the get-go, we reflected back on fourth place at state last fall with the disappointment and the raw determination that we were going to win a state championship this year. We didn't want anybody ever to forget us and make whomever we played this year remember us as the best team they'd ever seen.
"I think we've certainly proven that all season long, and now I know this team will forever be remembered."
Especially by Hart-Em, which dropped its second straight-set match to the Lady Norsemen after a tournament loss suffered to Newark back in September.
The Lady Norsemen used their incredible defense to stymie the potent offense of the Stags. Junior libero Meggie Scott produced an acrobatic assault of digs that resulted in a match-best 17, which initially set the tone for the match and an early 9-5 lead in the opening set.
"I told our blockers in the first game to block line and I'd dig everything cross that I could," Scott said. "I put a lot of confidence in myself that I'd get everything up. It was my first dig early in the opening set where I knew then we'd be able to get things done."
Freshman Megan Williams (nine kills, two blocks) then started to introduce herself to the state stage with three kills and a blocker that helped put Newark up 15-10 in the opener. All-state sophomore Madi Malone (match-best 11 kills) then grabbed the baton from Williams and smacked down three kills — the first to go up 18-12 — which was a laserbeam that bounced off a Hart-Em defender high into the first tier of seats at Redbird. She'd add a middle kill at 20-13 and a middle-row smoked stroke into the Stags defense on game point which put her club up 1-0 in sets.
"That was a key moment for us, because we proved that first match against them back in September wasn't just a bad performance for them when we beat them in two sets," Malone said. "Now we had another set playing them in the state championship game, and we didn't want to let them forget about the last time we beat them."
The Lady Norsemen certainly didn't, coming out on fire in set two as Williams hammered a pair of left-side kills and Malone a middle row attack that opened a 3-0 run. After the Stags (36-5) rallied to take the lead 10-9, junior middle hitter Mattie Chapman (five kills, two blocks) rifled down a kill that helped tie up the proceedings 11-11.
"It was me and Megan at the net, and I thought it might have been a block, but it didn't matter because I thought at that point it was a momentum-builder after they had taken the lead," Chapman said. "From there we started to build an advantage."
A kill by Malone and two stuff blocks by Williams put Newark up 14-11. A left-side winner by Williams and two consecutive daggers from Malone gave the Lady Norsemen their biggest lead in the set, 19-13.
Hart-Em embarked on a 10-4 run to tie things at 23-23 with serve in hand before a service error and a Williams middle kill at the net on match point sent the Lady Norsemen into a championship frenzy and into the NHS history books.
"Meggie was having a phenomenal defensive game, so I knew she'd dig the serve up to Olivia (Nelson)," Williams said. "When Olivia set it to me, I just knew I had to get it done, and when it hit the ground it was just a surreal moment. I could never imagine I'd have such a dream season like this in my freshman year."
Nelson — who as a senior owns every setting record in NHS history and departs with classmates Evie Martin, Morgan Richards, and Alyssa Gittins — ultimately put an emphatic stamp on the championship proceedings with her final set as a Lady Norseman.
"Meggie passed it up, and I knew their blockers were going to pull back towards the nine spot," Nelson said. "I pushed it to Megan, and she went up and crushed it, and then I fell to the ground knowing we'd just won a state championship.
"I feel beyond blessed going out this way as a senior. I believe our MTR goal fueled us this year, and hopefully we won't be forgotten about any time soon."
There's absolutely no chance of that.