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DECATUR — Grace Buxton and Valerie Nutakor have had a lot to get used to this season. 

As the only two freshmen on the state-tournament bound St. Teresa volleyball team, Buxton and Nutakor have had to adapt to a lot this season with nothing bigger than the quickness of the high school game. 

"That's the biggest part of coming from middle school, even with a high level of club play, there is still a big learning curve just because of the speed," St. Teresa coach Brad Dalton said. "You've got 14- and 15-year-olds receiving from 18-year-olds and I knew (Grace and Valerie) were going to have to get used to the speed.

"Grace adapted a little bit quicker than Val but Val is different since she is playing in the first row and has to transition faster and block faster."

Now the freshmen will also have to adjust to playing in a 10,500-seat arena as the Bulldogs compete in the Class 1A State Tournament semifinals Friday at 10:30 a.m. against Hartsburg-Emden at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal. 

Nutakor, a middle hitter in junior high, transitioned to outside hitter this season and has developed into a key offensive weapon. 

"The beginning of the season was rough," she said. "It was really hard to drop off the net and then transition and then hit and then you have to block. This year I'm also passing and serve receiving, which is a struggle because as a middle I really didn't have to pass."

She also earned a nickname in an early season game that has motivated to improve her game.  

"At the start of the season (Coach Dalton) would get on your case if you made a mistake and there was this one game that he called me an eighth grader," Nutakor said. "He said, 'You are so slow you look like an eighth grader out there."

Since then, Nutakor has had 170 kills, good for third on the team behind juniors Lexie Huck (206) and Abby Robinson (193), and at 5-foot-10 she has become a formidable blocker. 

Buxton's early season had some struggles as well. 

"At first coach had me on the outside and I could never hit the ball and I would always get blocked," she said. "I said to him, 'Put me at libero' and then he did and now I'm the libero," she said. "I had never played libero before and I love getting on the floor."

Buxton leads the team in digs (325 this season) with an average of nearly nine per match. She has also become a dominant server, ranking second on the team with 35 aces. 

Dalton, who is in his first year coaching at St. Teresa after previously coaching at MacArthur, said he knew he had something special in the pair long before the first match of the season. 

"When I got the job I wanted to get out and see the middle school kids play and familiarize myself with what I was going to have coming in," he said. "(Grace and Valerie) stood out and dominated middle school matches like I've never seen."

Dalton had high hopes for his team but wondered how they would respond to his style of coaching.   

"When I came in and saw them in the summer I knew we had the pieces and it was just going to be how much change could we get in the first season," he said. "The kids worked their butts off and haven't given up on what they are trying to accomplish."

Nutakor was surprised at her coach's optimism about the season. 

"In the beginning when coach would talk to use about seeing this team going to state in the front of my mind I was thinking: What? That's crazy. You haven't really even practiced with us. You don't even know us and you are already saying that?" Nutakor said. "But in the back of my mind I guess I had a feeling that we could go far."

In St. Teresa's victories in the sectional finals and supersectionals, the team has come out strong and then let its opponents back into the game in the second set. It also happened when the Bulldogs faced Hartsburg-Emden at the Quincy Notre Dame Tournament on Oct. 19, losing 25-19, 22-25, 10-15.

"We have a really bad tendency of popping someone in the mouth and kill them in the first game and then we relax and then lose it 27-25. At the same time, we are playing quality teams and they don't want to give up because their season is ending if they lose," Dalton said. "If we are able to get one of those runs in the second set we can put the game away."

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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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