VALMEYER — The Valmeyer Pirates couldn't have reached the state tournament for the first time in a team sport without their "mother hen.''
Senior middle hitter Paige Whipple was a guiding force on and off the court for the Pirates, who placed fourth in the Class 1A State Volleyball Tournament.
As a result, she was chosen as the Belleville News-Democrat's Class 1A-2A Volleyball Player of the Year in voting by metro-east coaches.
"She is outgoing, she is well-liked among her peers,'' Valmeyer coach Jenny Kohnz said. "She is kind of the mother hen to all the other players. I think the girls look up to her a lot.''
Whipple, 17, is more mature than most teen-agers.
"I get told that quite often,'' Whipple said. "I get told that I am very mature for my age. My parents and my friends tell me that it's because I work with kids so much.''
Whipple loves kids. She has been the baby sitter for Kohnz's five kids and assistant coach Karla Bivins' granddaughters.
"That's my main hobby, baby sitting,'' Whipple said. "I love it. Once they get to about the fifth grade, I'm not very interested. But, I love the ages from newborns on to fifth grade.''
Whipple's other passion is volleyball.
The 6-foot left-hander had a team-leading 410 kills and a team-leading 244 blocks. She also led her squad in service aces with 57 and was third in digs with 360.
"Being a left-handed middle hitter, you don't see many of those, so that was a little bit of an advantage for her,'' Kohnz said. "She was definitely our go-to hitter even if she was the back row. If we needed a kill, we set her in the back row.''
Whipple said what the Pirates accomplished this season still doesn't seem real some days.
"There is days that I totally like, 'My senior year, we went to state,' and I realize how far we went and how of an accomplishment it was,'' Whipple said. "Then there is other days when somebody says, 'Remember when you guys went to state,' and it still doesn't seem real. It feels like it is a huge dream that is coming true, but it hasn't yet.''
Nerves were an issue for the Pirates in their first state appearance as they lost to eventual champion Mount Pulaski 25-8, 25-16 in the semifinal round and Kansas 25-15, 25-21 in the third-place match.
"We got up there and saw how big it was, and that's when it hit us,'' Whipple said. "That's when we got scared. We panicked, we freaked out being a small school going to state for the first time.''
Whipple wishes the Pirates could do it all over again.
"It's an experience that I won't forget, but it's also an experience I wish we could have over,'' Whipple said. "I feel like we were to go back up there now and we had that experience to re-do, I feel we could be use to the setting and not let the setting of state scare us. I think if we would go up there again tomorrow, we could have the potential to get first place.''
Whipple signed a letter of intent to attend McKendree University after the volleyball season.
Wanting to stay close to her parents, Bruce and Toni Whipple, and her 12-year-old brother Andrew was the major factor in the decision.
"Just the thought of being at a school where I am going to have that college atmosphere, but still be a 45-minute drive away from home to come see my family when I need to was a huge factor,'' Whipple said.
Whipple refers to Andrew as her greatest fan as well as her best friend.
"He means the world to me,'' Whipple said. "Yes, we get in fights every day, but what is a sibling relationship like with no fights? He actually told the other day that he is going to mess me terribly when I go to college, but she's glad that I choose McKendree so he can come visit me whenever he wants. I think leaving him next year is going to be super hard to do.''
Whipple hopes to get accepted into McKendree's Occupational Therapy program with the goal of helping kids with disabilities.
"Last year, I would go down to our kindergarten class and help the teacher every day, and every day I would be greeted by this little girl,'' Whipple said. "She became my little sister, my little best friend. She hugs me still. The day after I meet her, I found out that she has mental disability. Meeting her that day changed my mind. At first, I wanted to be a neonatal nurse. It changed my view on how I wanted to help kids out. From that day on, I've wanted to work with kids with mental disabilities.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.