By Mike Deak
NAPPANEE – Much like in The Last Dance, it took several different angles to exemplify and personify the greatness that was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
When looking at our 2019-20 Ink Free News Athlete of the Year, NorthWood’s Maddy Payne, her journey in volleyball and basketball were more than just a collection of footnotes and anecdotes. So rather than skim over both in making our case, Payne’s story is being told as it should, in full.
“I’d like to thank my teammates…”
Payne used her fallback line often during the 2019-20 athletic year. It was her comfort phrase, it made sense to her. It gave Payne the chance to deflect attention away from her and to someone else. It wasn’t that she wanted to avoid the spotlight, she just wanted others to be there with her.
“This accolade, among the others, still means a lot to me. It is nice to be recognized for the gifts that I have been given by people in our community,” offered Payne. “I am very appreciative of all of these things. Just like anything else, I can’t do it without my team. This year has been my personal favorite as far as team chemistry goes. I am dying to spend a beach day with everyone on both of my teams like we have been planning since the beginning of quarantine.”
Payne had already made a name for herself as a volleyball player. As the featured player at the net as a junior, coaches and defenses knew all about her. And so did Bethel University. Payne and teammate Caroline Mullet had already embarked on a successful NIVA club team run in the summer, performing as one of the top clubs in the state. It would be a precursor for the fall as a somewhat unassumed Panthers team just kept winning.
Payne’s spot in NorthWood’s rotation became crucial. None more evident than in the state tournament, where Payne and her team finally broke through with its first sectional title for the senior class. The inability of Tippecanoe Valley, Wawasee and/or West Noble to find a way to stop Payne was evident, as she piled up 36 kills and 11 blocks in the three wins. It wasn’t just Payne; but with her on the floor, NorthWood would run off huge runs against Valley and Wawasee that ended upset bids quickly.
While Payne and company gained steam in the Norwell Regional, a 3-0 win over Northwestern wasn’t a total shocker, but 19 kills and two blocks from Payne opposite Madison Layden was, again, eye-opening. The dreaded rotation, however, would come back to hurt NorthWood later that night against Bellmont. Unable to get a point with Payne subbed out, NorthWood couldn’t put away the Squaws in three, then four, and the senior was on the bench for the final points of game five as its season came to an abrupt halt.
“My senior year has been one for the books,” Payne said. “Volleyball season was a blast and we had a lot of success. If I’m being honest I think we all thought that we were going to win the regional. Through no fault of our own I think that we got comfortable and settled because we expected to win and that is what led to our loss in the finals. However, this influenced a lot of us, especially me, in our basketball run.”
Payne’s 24 kills and seven blocks against Bellmont in her final game put a proper bow on a huge volleyball career. She finished 2019 with 421 kills and a 52-percent kill percentage, landing her among the state’s elite in both categories. Her 103 blocks was another top-50 state statistic.
NorthWood’s 32 wins on the year and 29-match win streak were both program records, and the team’s 7-0 run through the Northern Lakes Conference gave the Red Slam its first outright NLC title in almost two decades.
“She is a caring loving teammate,” said NorthWood volleyball head coach Hilary Laidig. “She definitely wants to make sure her teammates are doing okay in life first. As far as a relationship with me, she is a very mature kid. You can definitely tell she is an oldest kid. She loves to have conversations with adults and is easy to communicate and talk with.”
Payne, named an All-State player with Mullet, will continue to make poetry in motion together at Bethel University in the fall.
Noted Bethel University head coach Katie Weiss, “Maddy Payne will no doubt be a successful college athlete. She will adjust quickly to the timing and power of the college game. Maddy plays the game with her mind engaged 100 percent. She is disciplined and skilled at her role and that is how she has found success along with her natural athletic ability.”
“Caroline is just an absolute stud,” noted Payne of her longtime teammate. “She feeds me the ball so well and she is the reason I have had any success in volleyball at all. Lucky for me I will get four more years with her!”