MOUNT PULASKI — After a year of uncertainty in the Mount Pulaski volleyball program, calm has returned.
Long-time Hilltoppers coach Donna Dulle was told in August 2017 that last season would be her final one with the team because the school board would not be renewing her contract.
An outpouring of support from community members and current and former players led to a tabling of that original motion. Then, in April, Dulle's contract was extended for her 38th season with the team.
The uncertainty could have derailed the team, but instead it brought the team closer together. The Hilltoppers won another regional title last season — the 32nd of Dulle's coaching career at Mount Pulaski.
"No, it didn’t affect the team," Hilltoppers' outside hitter Abigail Fitzpatrick said. "We knew it was there, but it eventually blew over. We were all supporting her and it made us work harder to prove that she does belong here."
The strong ties between the community and the volleyball team became evident, and with Dulle's impressive resume, it's easy to understand why.
Dulle has led the Hilltoppers to two state championships (1989 and 2007), and eight second-place finishes (1988, 1996, 2002-2004, 2009-2012). According to the IHSA website, Dulle is 1086-347 in her career for a 75.8 winning percentage.
"Volleyball is this community," Dulle said. "The families are very, very supportive, and I think that helps us to be more successful.
"The community is involved and the (school) board said they wanted to go in a different direction. Well, I’m not a mean person. We’ve won the seventh grade state tournament two years in a row, we won a regional championship. I’m not mean to the kids. What direction do you want to go?"
Through the uncertainty, Dulle never considered retirement.
"I wasn’t ready to retire," she said. "After all that we’ve done and we’ve been successful. I enjoy the families and I enjoy the kids, so whatever they wanted was how I felt. They wanted me to be here."
Fitzpatrick, who will play volleyball at Southern Illinois University next season, is glad things have been resolved.
"I was worried about that for my senior year — her not coming back," Fitzpatrick said. "I didn’t want to have a new coach that I really didn’t know what they were doing. I was just scared for that. She knows what she’s doing and I’ve had her as my coach since first grade and I didn’t want that change to be made in my last year."
Fitzpatrick leads a group of five seniors, including outside hitter Skylar Hayes, middle hitter Morgan May, right hitter Madison Thomas and defensive specialist Savanah Moore, who have ambitious goals for the season.
"We made a goal sheet and one of the team goals is to not let balls drop on serve receive," Fitzpatrick said. "We want to beat certain teams like Hartsburg and Athens and then we have a big goal of going to state."
A team with this amount of depth doesn't come around too often.
"We have five seniors, a very strong group and it has been four or five years since we have had this much experience and I hope that it helps us in the long matches," Dulle said.
That experience includes the Hilltoppers' loss to the eventual 1A state champion Payson-Seymour in the sectional semifinals last year.
"(The loss) was disappointing — the team we lost to was really good," Fitzpatrick said. "We practiced really hard the week before to get through and make plays to break through their defense, but it was too strong.
"We tried our best and played our best that game, but it just didn’t happen our way. I think it prepared us for this year more, knowing what we have to do earlier in advance to get to that level."
As this year's group hopes to add another banner to the Mount Pulaski gymnasium, Dulle looked back at years of elite Hilltoppers teams.
"(This year's team) is a fun group of kids, they are dedicated, they work extremely hard," she said. "Each group has been very different. We have had lots and lots of great volleyball players and parents that have pushed them. They’ve worked very hard to get a banner up on the wall."