NORMAL — Since her team has never played in this large of a venue with this high of stakes, New Athens coach Kyla Patton is concerned about stage fright.
The Yellow Jackets (28-9) will play the Stewardson-Strasburg Comets (27-12) at 10:30 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in the semifinals of the Class 1A state volleyball tournament.
"I think we need to take a deep breath and play our game, and not let the stadium overwhelm us,'' Patton said. "I know that's the first thing I am going to tell the girls. I'm going to tell them to take a look around and not be overwhelmed by the big atmosphere.
"Obviously, we have played our game all year and it has worked, so let's not get away from our game. Just calm down and play our game.''
The Yellow Jackets are the third metro-east team in three years to make its first state tournament appearance in Class 1A.
Gibault placed fourth two years ago and Valmeyer placed fourth last year. For both teams, nerves were a factor in the opening match.
"We're just trying to stay on our toes and not psyche ourselves out about anything,'' setter and right-side hitter Jessica Crabtree said. "Just play the best we can.''
Crabtree is the lone senior on the Yellow Jackets, who make up for what they lack in experience on the volleyball court by having several three-sport athletes who have played in a lot of tight contests across several sports.
"I've been big into sports all of my life, so the nerves are more of a drive for me,'' sophomore middle hitter Abby Marlow said. "It makes me want to play more aggressive and beat the team even more.''
While the Yellow Jackets are making their first state tournament appearance, the Comets are making their ninth.
However, it's their first trip to state since 1995. They won the Class A state championship in 1986.
The Comets are led by junior outside hitter Kendall Knop, who has 330 kills, and senior outside hitter Brittani Tabber, who has 284 kills.
"I did watch film on them today, and they are very comparable to us,'' Patton said. "Their right side and their outsides are very strong from the film. I think it should be a pretty good matchup.''
The two teams have one common opponent.
The Comets beat Gibault 25-18, 20-25, 25-21 at the Mount Pulaski Tournament, while the Yellow Jackets lost to Gibault 26-24, 16-25, 23-25 at the Herrin Tournament.
"I know when we played Gibault, our games were very close,'' Patton. "After we played Gibault, I had quite a few of the Gibault parents come up and say, 'You have a pretty good New Athens team for a little 1A school.'''
The Yellow Jackets have won 14 of their last 17 matches. They have yet to be pushed to three sets in a match in the postseason.
"We just kind of clicked all together halfway through the season and made it all work,'' Crabtree said. "We want to win. We ultimately want to win. We play as a team, so we can play as our best.''
Patton said she doesn't mind playing in the morning matches.
The Yellow Jackets will get to watch most of the 9 a.m. semifinal between (Rockford) Keith Country Day (27-3) and (Sciota) West Prairie (30-6-1) prior to their match.
The third-place match is set for 9 am. Saturday, while the championship match is set 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Patton said the Yellow Jackets will return Saturday to New Athens after the medal ceremony for an assembly at the school and then a gathering for players, parents and the entire community at "The Bullpen.''
"I would rather play 9 in the morning than 9 at night,'' Patton said. "Saturday, we get to come back to our community and celebrate with our community. And, whether it's first place or fourth place, like I told the girls, this is just icing on the cake.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.