It began with one regional title in the fall of 2013.
That small spark by the New Athens Yellow Jackets girls volleyball team, which hadn’t won a regional since the program began in 1973, ignited a fire of athletic success that has been burning brightly ever since.
“The image I see in my mind is them dropping to their knees and just seeing tears,” New Athens volleyball coach Kyla Patton said, recalling that historic regional victory. “Just the overload of emotion in all of them, it was just incredible. I’ll never forget it.
“It captured the attention of the whole community and everybody was behind them.”
That one regional win in 2013 equaled the combined total from all three girls sports — basketball, volleyball and softball — in school history.
“We won the regional and then we kept on going,” said New Athens senior Abby Marlow, a basketball, volleyball and softball player who will play college softball as a pitcher at Division I Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “We all had that drive in us. After we went to state in volleyball we were like ‘Let’s carry this on to basketball.’ We won a regional in basketball, then in softball. It just kept going.”
The image I see in my mind is them dropping to their knees and just seeing tears. Just the overload of emotion in all of them, it was just incredible. I’ll never forget it.
New Athens volleyball coach Kyla Patton on the school’s first regional title
Before 2013, New Athens’ only girls regional title was won by the 1990 softball team. But thanks to an amazingly strong group of talented players, dedicated coaches and the support of an entire town, New Athens has laid a strong foundation of female athletic success.
The proof can be seen in the gym hallway entrance, which in the past was dominated by boys trophies and plaques and pictures of the school’s four state baseball tournament teams that included the 1979 state champs and Whitey Herzog’s 1948 state tourney qualifier.
Since 2013, New Athens’ girls sports teams own six regional titles, three sectional titles and made a trip to state in volleyball. That’s a lot of hardware.
“Now you see all of our pictures up there, the big state picture, and its like ‘Oh gosh, that was us,’’’ said New Athens senior Savanna Idecker, a multi-tasker like most of her volleyball teammates who also plays softball and is a basketball cheerleader. “I feel like that makes the teams under us push more to achieve what we got to achieve.
“It’s been a great ride, that’s for sure.”
Since 2013, the New Athens girls basketball team is 69-9 with two regional titles. The volleyball team is 87-25 with two regionals, a sectional and a fourth-place finish at state.
The softball team is 55-31 with two regional wins and a sectional title.
Much of that success included the current seniors and a strong group ahead of them that graduated last year.
“They never forget where they came from, their families, and the hard work that got them there,” Patton said. “The bond they have, I’ve never experienced anything like that. It’s pretty incredible.”
This isn’t just a turnaround, it’s a quantum leap forward at a school that had tasted virtually no postseason success in girls athletics. There have been talented female athletes and teams at New Athens through the years, but these recent groups have been different.
We’re not a team to be put aside any more. We’re building up our program. We’ve been working so hard to get our name out there.
New Athens senior Alina Lance
Crowds are larger. Interest is higher. Grade school students can’t wait to play in high school.
“We’re not a team to be put aside any more,” said New Athens senior Alina Lance, a non-stop bundle of energy who does cross country and volleyball at the same time before launching into basketball and softball. “We’re building up our program. We’ve been working so hard to get our name out there.”
Lance will play softball at Lake Land Community College, though she hates the thought of only playing one sport.
“Even in P.E. we go hard because no one likes to lose,” Lance said. “Our little saying is no blood, no glory.”
Fueled by pizza — and a drive to succeed
Some of the names keep resurfacing when talking about the girls sports’ success at New Athens over the last three or four years.
Of the current college freshmen, Denae White plays volleyball at Lewis & Clark, Anisa Al-Bori plays volleyball and basketball at Southwestern Illinois and Allison Stolte plays softball at Kaskaskia.
Aleen Dutkanych attends Texas A&M, Jordan Parker attends Murray State and Jaycie Wahlig attends SWIC.
The list of current seniors includes Marlow, Idecker and Lance with a strong underclass group led by juniors Jordan Drake (volleyball, basketball, softball), Hunter Parker (volleyball and basketball) and Hannah Daab (basketball and softball) and sophomore Taylor Junge.
Since 2013, New Athens’ girls sports teams own six regional titles, three sectional titles and made a trip to state in volleyball.
“I’m so sad that it’s coming to an end,” Idecker said. “That seems like your family and you get to know all the girls so well. Last year I was really close to the seniors and when the season was over it was almost tragic when they had to leave.”
The current seniors are together almost constantly. When they’re not having pizza night with their favorite Village Pizza, they are pushing themselves hard after practice in things like a “five-minute plank challenge.”
New Athens Athletic Director Josh Wemhoener has been on the job for nine years. He has seen his girls’ sport programs continue to grow and he credits the athletes, coaches, parents and administration for creating a positive environment around female athletics.
Wemhoener, who grew up in Quincy, recalled the sense of pride he felt when the 2013 volleyball team returned home to New Athens after finishing fourth at the state tournament. The players rode on fire trucks in a parade that culminated with a large gathering at the school.
They are definitely a gifted group, that’s for sure, but they work hard and they’ve got a great work ethic. They got that taste of success and they ran with it.
New Athens basketball coach Erik Hager
“After everything was said done, watching the girls play up at state in that venue was an accomplishment on its own,” Wemhoener said. “Coming home to the crowds and the community supporting them, it was just a great celebration. We came home with fourth place, but at that point it didn’t really matter.”
Winning is contagious
Erik Hager was born and raised in New Athens and was good enough in baseball to earn a scholarship from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He knows the town and its athletics program well enough to realize that this current upswing is far from normal.
Hager’s girls basketball teams are 69-9 since 2013.
“Twenty years ago we didn’t even have girls basketball here,” Hager said. “Our girls played softball and volleyball and they cheered. We had no track or cross county or basketball for girls. This has been an unbelievable run and this year’s group as kept it going.
“They did have success at the junior high level, but I don’t know if you can ever look ahead like this. To excel the way they have and continue to grow as a group has been pretty neat to see.”
Marlow’s father, New Athens Elementary School Principal Jim Marlow, got the basketball interest going by taking a girls group to play in the Belleville YMCA youth league.
That group won its league and many of that team’s players were on New Athens’ eighth-grade team that won a state title.
“Basketball is probably the one sport that they’ve probably played the least,” Hager said. “We don’t have any girls playing AAU ball or playing any summer basketball besides when I bring them in here or the summer or do a summer camp.
“They are definitely a gifted group, that’s for sure, but they work hard and they’ve got a great work ethic. They got that taste of success and they ran with it.”
New Athens softball coach Conrad Widdersheim has seen the same thing. His teams have won back-to-back regional titles, won conference titles in two of the last three years and also won a sectional in 2014.
Pitching has been strong with Marlow, Stolte and Cheyenne Muffo before that.
“It’s an attitude more than anything, knowing that when you go to the ball field or the court you’ve got a good chance of winning,” he said. “It’s obvious that some schools have that because they’ve had success year after year. We’re trying to do that here as well and I hope it’s not just a flutter for a couple years and then goes away.
“We want to get that mentality.”
Patton said that while these last few groups of girls have played at historic levels, it’s what they do off the court that makes them even more special.
“They just love each other. You see them hanging out and they truly care about each other,” she said. “As a coach like me to sit back and watch it, that makes a huge difference. Before, nothing was said of girls sports. What they have done — and how hard they’ve worked to build that — is just incredible.”
Marlow agreed about the chemistry between teammates.
“I feel like we have as special bond,” she said. “It’s like we know what each other is thinking. You’ve got to have that derive in you, but you’ve also got to enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s going to be very hard to do.”
A Winning Tradition
New Athens girls sports are on a definite upswing in recent years:
- First winning season: 16-11 in 2012-13
- First regional titles: 2014, 2015
- Record since 2013: 69-9
- Current season: 19-4
- No regional titles from 1973 to 2012
- First regional title: 2013 (also won regional in 2014)
- First sectional title: 2013 (also won sectional in 2014)
- First state tournament trip: 2013 (finished fourth)
- Record since 2013: 87-25
- 2015 season: 27-8
- One regional title from 1976 to 2013 (1990)
- Regional titles: 2014, 2015
- First sectional title: 2014
- Record since 2013: 55-31
- 2015 season: 22-8