NEWTON — As Newton volleyball coach Jill Kistner watched her team lose its season opener to Effingham last August, she thought to herself: This may be a long season.
She mentioned it to her team and it would become something that her players wouldn’t let her forget.
“I said ‘Wow, this may be a long season if this is how we are going to perform.’ The girls kind of tease me about that to this day: 'Do you remember when we lost to Effingham and you said it was going to be a long season? Did you mean long like we were going to play into the state tournament?’” she said.
A long season was exactly what Kistner and the Eagles (32-8) got as they took home a third place trophy at the Class 2A state tournament, earning Kistner the Herald & Review Area Volleyball Coach of the Year.
Kistner has been Newton’s coach since 2013, and in that time she has built the program from one that was winning 20 games a season to one that regularly tops 30.
That kind of improvement is hard to orchestrate and Kistner is always looking to get a leg up on the competition.
“For as much as I ask my kids to do, I’m never satisfied myself with learning the game of volleyball," Kistner said. "I always feel like there is more for me to figure out.
“I’m constantly trying to find the best volleyball coaches from the high school and college levels and I watched the NCAA tournament and I listened to every single post-game interview by every coach just to try to catch something that they say that maybe I can apply. Volleyball is a chess game and there are so many good coaches out there. What can I do to get my edge?”
After navigating that opening night loss, the Newton team developed a team dynamic as a group of sophomores who hadn’t played varsity before uniting with the established senior leadership.
“Our team chemistry was the best it has ever been while I’ve been a coach. I’ve never had a team that just meshed so well as a group of 14 girls on varsity," Kistner said.
The sophomores jumped into key roles on the team.
Kelsi Geltz became the libero and led the Eagles with 274 digs. Maddi Hemrich took the setter spot and led the team with 434 assists. Renee Probst and Allyson Kuhl where hitters who combined for 178 kills.
Senior captain Abby Frohning was willing to do whatever the team needed to win.
“Abby has always been up the challenge of playing wherever I need her to play," Kistner said. "This year I needed a setter and back on the outside and she didn’t even blink her eye and said, ‘You’ve got it if that’s what we need,’ and she stepped into that role with such grace and I couldn’t be more proud of her."
As the Eagles approached the playoff, everyone bought in and they took it all the way to a third-place medal.
“I would say our success down the stretch was my young kids starting to build confidence and my older kids starting to believe: Wow, we can do this, the sophomores are really helping us,’” she said. “Everyone started to believe and volleyball is such a mental game, if you believe you can do it, you can do anything on a given night.”
Now that the Newton’s season is over, Kistner is tackling a new volleyball puzzle: Coaching kids who have never played volleyball before.
“I’m coaching seventh- and eighth-grade volleyball at Jasper County Junior High, and it’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” Kistner said. “It’s hard to go from a state volleyball level team to an, 'I’ve just picked up a volleyball for the first time in my life’ level team, but I love it and it’s equally rewarding.”