NEW ATHENS — The trees outside New Athens High School got the toliet paper treatment with purple and yellow streamers hanging from them.
The lobby to the school's gymnasium was decorated with posters, one that read: "The road to state starts here."
The Yellow Jackets have reached the semifinals of the Class 1A State Girls Volleyball Tournament for the first time, an accomplishment that even their coach wouldn't have dared talk about when the season started.
"I'm the kind of person who never wants to say that because I don't want to jinx myself," New Athens coach Kyla Patton said. "Did they have talent to do it? Absolutely. Did they have the heart? This group is just humble, good human beings. They care about each other, they're good girls and they know how to work hard.
"Deep down, I guess I knew it was possible. What's life all about if you don't dream."
The Yellow Jackets have brought some excitement to this community of about 2,000 residents. They've already gone for two rides on the town's fire trucks, and the crowds at their games have been increasing with each match.
"Everybody is excited," junior outside hitter Aleen Dutkanych said. "Even if you walk into the grocery store or the gas station, they're like, 'Do you play volleyball? Oh, my gosh we're so happy for you."'
"Towards the beginning of the season, we didn't have many fans," senior setter-hitter Jessica Crabtree said. "Now the stands are full. It's crazy. All the momentum they have given us from coming to the games and cheering us on has really helped."
There's a list of team goals for this season hanging on the wall of the gymnasium. It ends with winning a first regional championship. But the Yellow Jackets didn't stop there.
By winning the sectional and the super-sectional, they're guaranteed of bringing home at least a fourth-place trophy.
The last New Athens team to claim a state trophy was the 1979 state championship baseball team.
"In 10 years, we're going to come back and look at the trophy and say, 'That was our team that went there,"' junior middle hitter Anisa Al-Bori said after the Yellow Jackets beat Lebanon 25-13, 25-15 in the Marissa Super-Sectional.
The Yellow Jackets don't have a lot of star power. They have a group of well-rounded players who have learned the value of teamwork.
"We play as team," Patton said. "I think that is the best part of this team. At any time anybody can execute a play and make it happen. There is not one girl that we go to. It's all of us."
Crabtree is the lone senior for the Yellow Jackets. She leads the team in assists with 354, but she also has 68 kills and 34 blocks.
"She is such a great leader, and the girls just respect her and admire her," Patton said of Crabtree. "There is not one person on this team, and I would even say not one person in this school, who can say one bad thing about Jessica."
Junior outside hitter Denae White leads the Yellow Jackets in digs with 241 and aces with 56. She also has 148 kills.
"She is very steady and she is very consistent in the back row as well as the front row," Patton said. "Denae is a person who typically gets her serves in, typically makes a good pass and typically always gets her hits in."
Junior outside hitter Aleen Dutkanych has 132 kills, 47 aces and 197 digs.
"The last five games, she has really come on strong," Patton said. "She's always been a good athlete, but her last five games her hits have been unbelievable. It's a good time to get on fire."
Middle hitter Abby Marlow, who has a team-leading 184 kills and 90 blocks, is part of a sophomore class that also includes Alina Lance.
"You can see some of the youngness in them, but they're really starting to mature," Patton said. "It's nice to see them grow."
Al-Bori has 159 kills and 81 blocks, while junior setter Jaycie Wahlig has 245 assists.
The Yellow Jackets are entering a promising period for their girls sports program.
Many of the volleyball players also play basketball and softball.
"We have a basketball game already on Monday," Dutkanych said. "I know our basketball coach is so pumped up. She's like, 'I'm so happy for you because I know this excitement is going to carry over to basketball season."'
Marlow said the Yellow Jackets have enough talent to extend their postseason success in volleyball to both basketball and softball.
"I think we can definitely get there," Marlow said. "We have a good, athletic group."
Many of the current Yellow Jackets were members of a grade school squad that advanced to the regional championship in volleyball before running into Aviston.
"We lost to them in three games, and everybody was like, 'Ah, we're going to do so much better in high school,"' Dutkanych said. "Then like my freshman year in the freshman tournament, we played Central. It was basically the same girls, and we lost again to them.
"It's finally our time to go and show everyone who we are and what we're made of."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.