DECATUR — Following St. Teresa's victory in the Class 2A title match, Bulldogs coach Brad Dalton got to take the championship trophy home.
It was a moment that he will cherish for a long time.
"I didn't take any pictures with it but I should have marched it around town. I handled it with care when I brought it back," he said. "You've got to appreciate it because we have been (to state) twice in a row but it just doesn't happen. You've got to get your classes together and a lot has to do with the athleticism you have on the team, but at the end of the day it is getting them to buy into your system and perfecting it.
"That's what they did this year: They perfected it."
The Bulldogs became the first Macon County team to win a state volleyball championship and were honored on Monday by fellow students, family and fans in a celebration of the team's victory.
Seven of the team's 15-girl roster will graduate were seniors and each played an important roles on the team.
Captains Lexie Huck and Abby Robinson will play volleyball at Calvin College and Huntington University, respectively. Setter Cami Lobb will continue playing at Lincoln Land College.
"Abby and Lexie are phenomenal volleyball players and Cami is a great kid and played well all season and has great numbers in the two years I have been here," Dalton said. "Lexie has got one of the higher volleyball IQs of any kid I've coached and she's probably going to start right away in college. I wouldn't be surprised if Abby starts, too. She is a very underrated small outside side hitter and I'm surprised a Division I school didn't pick her up to play defense."
Dalton foresaw this day coming and gave several younger players a lot of varsity playing time this season.
"It is going to be hard to replace them but that is why I play a lot of young kids. I have no doubt (the freshmen) will step into something next year," he said.
The depth of the Bulldogs' roster meant that players that would start for other schools had more limited roles this season.
"There is no doubt in my mind that (seniors) Sade' Oladipupo and Kenzie Snow would be starting for other programs," Dalton said. "That's a testament to the talent we had this season. They are two outstanding character kids and I never heard a complaint from them. (Senior) Marie Delaney was a good kid and important to have around. She really made the kids better to practice against her."
It is easy to judge the contribution a player gives to a team based on their stats, but in the case of senior Audrey Banning, her contribution to the team is immeasurable.
"(Audrey) and (junior) Emily Birschbach were big drivers of our success last year because of the enthusiasm they brought to the bench. Before they were added to the bench, there wasn't a lot going on over there," Dalton said. "Just them from last year has turned into everybody this year. They are all jumping up and down and Audrey — you always hear her. She is never quiet; she is always cheering. You can't replace kids like that."
Banning could frequently be found in mid-air, jumping with excitement on the bench.
"I love to cheer on my best friends because they mean so much to me and it is the most exciting feeling ever when they play well and it makes me so proud," she said. "(State) was crazy. The adrenaline and everyone being so excited and every point was so exciting. I'm so glad we got to end the season with a win."
Last year's successes led to a large freshman class coming out for the team this season and Dalton was considering making some roster changes at the start of the season.
"In practice, I was crying to all my friends that volleyball was literally my world and I do know what I would do if I could not play my senior year," Banning said.
But for Dalton, Banning's positive impact on the team was undeniable.
"I think Audrey was worried and I pulled her aside and I said: 'I am 100 percent certain you are going to be on that team,'" Dalton said. "That doesn't really have to do with her volleyball ability, it is about her character. You have to have to have character kids on your team."
Banning took Dalton's words of encouragement to heart, inspiring this year's team and teams to come in the future.
"It made me feel like I had some expectations to meet and I needed to do my job in cheering on the team," Banning said. "There are a lot of us graduating but I really think they could go back again next year. We have a lot of young players that have so much talent."
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten