NEWTON — When Jill Kistner got her first coaching job at Newton, Abby Frohning was an eighth grader who could jump out of the gym and spike volleyball's seemingly through the hardwood.
Five years later, not much has changed, except Frohning is now a senior and has the Eagles soaring to the Class 2A state volleyball tournament for the second time in school history.
The first visit came in 1990 when it was a two-class system, leaving Newton as one of eight teams in Class A to play at state.
Now, in a four-class system, the Eagles are in the Final Four in Class 2A and will play Quincy Notre Dame at 10 a.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal for a chance to advance to Saturday's state championship game.
It's the furthest advancement in school history.
When Kistner arrived in Newton, it didn't take her long to see the immense potential in Frohning.
“I knew that she was special then,” Kistner said. “The way that she had such great timing in eighth grade. It was just so raw then. I've watched her learn how to control her competitive temper and her maturity on the court.”
This season, Frohning leads the Eagles (31-7) in kills with 366, is second in assists with 280 and second in digs with 206.
Her jack-of-all-trades role is relatively new. As a freshman, Frohning dressed on varsity and played outside hitter for the Eagles. When she was a sophomore and junior, she moved to the right side. Now, the 5-foot-8 senior is back on the outside and doing a little bit of everything.
Frohning still gets her massive kills, but remains in the back row rotation now after adding to her defensive repertoire and showcasing her ability to dish out assists.
Passing has always been a strong suit for Frohning, but that didn't mean she was free of nerves when she expanded her role.
“At first I was really nervous about it because I wasn't sure how I was going to do,” Frohning said of being the second setter to Maddi Hemrich. “But it worked out really well and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else doing that so I'm happy with it.”
The bigger adjustment was defense. For the better part of the last year Kistner has been challenging Frohning to continue to improve defensively.
In past seasons, when Frohning's rotation to the back row came up, Kistner subbed in stronger defensive players. That didn't set well with the hyper-competitive Frohning.
So she kept working.
“Even at the beginning of August she would say, 'Coach tells me all the time I'm bad at defense.' I just challenged her to become better at it,” Kistner said. “I look at her now and her and (Kelsi Geltz) are the top every night in defense. That's probably where I'm most proud because I know she's a hitter and I know she can set the ball. Defense didn't come so natural to her like everything else did. She had to really work hard for that.
“She might still say she's still bad at it even though I completely disagree with her."
Frohning had to learn when to play defense while in the back row and when to leave to set her teammates. It was a struggle at first. She had anticipate how to read the ball off opponents' hands and determine if it would be a thunderous spike or a light dink over the net for a point.
“Defense is not my strongest suit in the game, but I've improved from the beginning of the season," Frohning said.
“In August I felt like I was really slow at reading and I didn't pick up tips very well. I just didn't read the ball. Now I feel like I have a pretty good read off the hitter's hand, whether it was going to be a tip or they were going to hit it hard."
Newton has won nine straight matches and 21 of its last 22. Kistner credits that to a team defensive resurgence.
But when the going gets tough, as it will Friday at Saturday at Redbird, the Eagles rely on Frohning.
When Newton needs a point, she knows her teammates are looking at her.
“I love getting that big point — the kill that we need,” Frohning said. “I will do just about anything to get our team the big point, no matter what it is. I love getting up and hitting the ball hard. That's what they need me to do and that's what I'll do.”
She hears praise around town and from classmates and teachers. The community has a history of rallying around sports teams.
The volleyball team is no different.
Painted signs fill the town, and fan buses and parents are bracing for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Redbird.
Those who don't make the trip will be tuned in, and Frohning and the Eagles are ready to put on a show.
“No matter if it's big or small, whatever support we get I know everyone is going to be cheering for us and doing whatever they can to get updates or hear it on Twitter or Facebook or try to hear it on the radio,” Frohning said. “They're going to be doing whatever they can to hear Newton Eagles volleyball that day.”