Kennedy Hoffman looked up at a wall in the Trinity Lutheran High School gym and gestured to the empty space on the right next to two signs describing past Cougar glories.
There was enough real estate open for a new Indiana-shaped yellow achievement placard if the Cougars win this season’s state volleyball championship.
“That’s the goal from the moment we lost last year,” the senior hitter said.
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Trinity Lutheran was the runner-up in last season’s Indiana High School Athletic Association Class A final, so close to being champs that returning players were immediately aching for a do-over.
“Oh, absolutely,” said senior Elly Carter. “It was the goal last year, and it’s the goal this year.”
Those players involved in the close call and who are scheduled to finish their high school volleyball careers this year have been laser-focused on a singular aspiration driving them. They know what they want for a graduation present.
“We want a state title,” said senior Sydney Jaynes.
The 2020 season is their second chance. Entering Tuesday night’s match against Center Grove, the Cougars were 23-3 and ranked No. 1 in the state in their division.
After a 5-2 start, Trinity has been nearly invincible in recent weeks, the team growing together, maturing on defense, exhibiting poise in returning shots and stampeding over most opponents in three straight sets. Still, not every contest is won so easily.
“We played some teams we had to dig down for,” said coach Faith Wilder-Newland. “I think our defense and our serve reception have gotten a lot better. Hitting, I think we hit very smart.”
No coach is ever going to stay her team is perfect, but there hasn’t been much for Wilder-Newland to complain about. Playing much larger Center Grove was an add-on game, a test, available for scheduling due to the coronavirus.
“There’s always something you can get better at,” said Wilder-Newland, who won her 700th career game earlier in the season.
One thing really helping this team jell is the leadership of the four seniors, Hoffman, Jaynes, Carter and Bailey Reynolds, and a core of younger players, too. They have blended well.
“I think definitely now they’re coming together,” Wilder-Newland said.
The seniors, who nearly won it all last year and have maintained their hunger, want to celebrate this year. They are the ones who really make things happen on the court.
“I think a lot of it has to do with experience,” Wilder-Newland said.
The veterans have hardcore winning attitudes, and whether it is with kills, aces, digs or assists, they fill the stat sheet.
“That’s for sure. They bring it. They really do,” Wilder-Newland said.
Last week, before winning three more matches in their own tournament, the Cougars easily brushed aside Crothersville and Hauser in sweeps.
The most notable common denominator was the efficiency of the defense, seemingly always being in the right place to return serves, an ability to repel attempted kills and setters being able to place passes for the hitters at the net.
When Jaynes and Hoffman smash kills, their speed usually needs a radar gun for measurement. The ball is more likely to smudge the floor than to be returned by opponents.
Such hard hits can demoralize foes, and at one point in the Hauser match, only moments apart, Jaynes and Hoffman smacked point-making kills that may have had the same effect as hitting same-inning homers off a pitcher.
“I do think ‘I’m going to hit it as hard as I can’ every single time,” Hoffman said.
When everything is meshing offensively and defensively, the mood is light, the outlook optimistic and the team dynamic can be read on faces and in body language.
“We’re really playing together,” Jaynes said.
Not just up front, either.
“Defense is absolutely the main thing,” Reynolds said. “This year, we’re a lot more solid.”
Carter, who has had some particularly strong stretches of serving, also gazed at the honors wall, where there is space for a new, proud team achievement sign, not one reading “Sectional” or “Regional” title winner on it, either.
One, Carter said, “That says champions.”