By Mike Deak
NAPPANEE – The Red Slam went 32-4 this season. The team won five championships along its route. Three players were named All-State. And yet, its stars spoke about one loss for months.
Such is the wild season NorthWood volleyball incurred in 2019. The team opened with ranked wins against Bethany Christian and Mishawaka Marian in its first week. But after two losses to Penn and a setback to Homestead, the team sat at just 3-3 overall on August 25.
That quickly changed.
NorthWood would storm through three in-season tournaments, winning trophies at Prairie Heights, Concord and Bremen, and then capped a perfect jaunt through the Northern Lakes Conference. In beating Wawasee in straight sets in early October, NorthWood finished up a 7-0 mark to win the conference title outright for the first time since 1997.
The Red Slam only dropped three total games during a 29-match win streak following its loss at Penn in August. The conference championship buoyed a similar run through the Wawasee Sectional, where the Panthers swept Wawasee, Tippecanoe Valley and West Noble without much trouble. Sectional title No. 21 for the program surprisingly was the first for a loaded senior class, the team last winning a sectional in 2015 when the seniors were in eighth grade.
“We had so many great players this year that played their roles so well,” stated NorthWood head coach Hilary Laidig. “Our lineup came together pretty quick in the summer. We were able to establish which outside hitters and middles went together. Maddy (Payne) and Caroline (Mullet) playing side-by-side was an easy decision. We did have some movement in the back row and did that throughout the season. We had so many great back row players who were so versatile.”
That motivation as a last dance of sorts had NorthWood blow past a very talented Northwestern team in the morning game of the Norwell Regional. NorthWood made one of the state’s best – Madison Layden – and the one-loss Wildcats look very average in a straight-set win.
After taking a 2-0 lead on Bellmont in the evening final at Norwell, NorthWood had the Squaws on the ropes before a furious rally tied the match at two. Not able to get Payne back into the rotation in the fifth, Bellmont pulled away for the regional title.
That burn indirectly fueled NorthWood’s girls basketball championship run.
“The end was gut wrenching,” stated Laidig. “I had never been up 2-0 in my coaching or playing career and lost, and now I have and I hope it never happens again!”
Payne finished her senior season in the top 50 in the state in both kills (421, 33rd) and blocks (103 combined, 46th). Mullet was also outstanding as a senior, finishing ninth in the state in assists (992) and also recorded a team-leading 344 digs on a squad that dug over 1,800 opponent attempts this season. Mullet, who is joining Payne as volleyball recruits at Bethel University, added 121 kills as one of the most well-rounded players in the area. Both girls were named All-State performers.
Senior Kate Rulli and junior Alea Minnich combined for over 340 kills and senior Gracie Clark, juniors Kennedy Hochstetler and Kendal Miller and freshman Macy Lengacher all had over 200 digs for the season. Junior Ali Knepp added over 100 kills and digs as well. Miller was named an Honorable Mention All-Stater as a defensive dynamo.
Laidig knows her seniors are going to leave a huge void, but nearly her entire defensive back line returns as do Minnich, Knepp and sophomore Alana Lehman among others.
“I am thinking those juniors learned a lot from the leadership the last two years and are ready to step in to their own leadership roles,” noted Laidig. “That group is a very competitive group – scrappy fighters.”