Finding cinders of victory in the ashes of defeat is never easy. However that's exactly what the Castle girls volleyball team did this past off-season. And it's gotten them all the way to the state title match.
"Chemistry," says Castle senior middle hitter Layla Wandel. "We're all really close, That's one thing we really value a lot."
"Resilient," says Castle senior libero Keira Moore. "I just think this team has fought back against so many challenges."
"Lovem" says Caste head coach Daniel Watson. "These kids love each other. They love the game. They love their school. They love every bit of this journey."
Much like their namesakes, the Castle Knights volleyball team has been on a season-long crusade to reach the state title game, a place this perennial power had never been to, despite their bulging trophy case.
25 straight sectional trophies. That's what this Castle program accomplished. That is until last year when the streak was stopped. However, that served as motivation going into this year's regionals, and beyond.
"I think it was kind of a reality check to lose a sectional last year," says Wandel. "I didn't want to lose it obviously, but I'm grateful for what it did for us. We started about two months earlier this year, getting prepped and ready to go. So we just take every day, day by day. And we didn't take anything for granted this year."
"It was a blessing in disguise," says Moore. "We started working harder. Instead of starting in June, we started in April. The seniors all came together and said "this is the year that we're going to make something happen. This is the year that we're going to bounce back"."
"If we use adversity in the right way," says Watson, "it can buy you a ticket to a place you never could have gotten to any other way. That became our mantra. And then we really examined what areas do we need to strengthen. Like preparing for playing at a high level on Saturdays, we didn't do a good job of last year. And that falls squarely on me."
So with everyone, including Watson, taking a share in the team's fortunes, the Knights reeled off an unbeaten season in the always competitive SIAC, began a new streak of sectional titles, broke through the long regional drought, leading to Saturday's sweep of Indy Roncalli at Jasper. A match far closer than the score suggests.
"The games were a lot closer than they seemed on paper," says Wandel. "I feel like we were battling the entire time. I know it was techincally a sweep, but Roncalli really gave us a run for our money the entire game."
"We did a really good job preparing," says Moore. "Before the game, Coach and I sat down and just kind of took in the atmosphere and I remember him looking at me and saying ,"I've never felt more prepared going in". I cam speak for the entire team when I say he was right. I don't think we had a mindset of " we're going to win, let's look past, let's go to state". Our mindset was that game. That's one of the reasons that we've made it so far is we're not looking ahead."
"We'd seen plenty of info on them and had a pretty good gameplan to stay away from that Texas recruit Emma Holder," says Watson. "Out of the hundred some odd serves, only 30 went to her. We never got unnerved because we had a plan and they stuck to that plan even when things got tight."
So now it's on to the 4-A state title game at Ball State University this Saturday, where they'll face another tough squad in McCutcheon. No doubt there will be butterflies going into their first trip to Muncie, but there will also be the confidence of a team that accomplished so much in a single season.
"I can't wait for the electricity," says Wandel. "The way that it feels to go on the court, knowing that win or lose, it's our last time out there. I'm just excited to leave it all out on the court."
"We're going to have a huge crowd," says Moore. "As big as it was at Jasper, I think it's going to be bigger because it's state. There might be a little nerves, but I think once you're playing for something bigger than yourself, once you're playing for a team, that nerve just goes away."
"Thinking about all those people who have helped me along the way to get there," says Watson. "I've had some really special coaches that got me started way back when. Thinking about all the sacrifices they made for me and they've never had this opportunity."