ELGIN – Last season as a much heralded freshman volleyball player for Newark High School Madi Malone shined all year long but struggled somewhat at the Class 1A State Championship round of four.
She left Redbird Arena in Normal having had a tough time as the Lady Norsemen ultimately fell to Durand in the third-place game where Malone registered 12 kills during a frustrating two-set loss to the Bulldogs.
This season the sophomore was bound and determined to get back to state and provide a magical performance on the court that more than likely will be remembered as one of the best in NHS history.
Playing the same Durand team that seemed to have her number at state in 2017, Malone wasn't about to let them forget about that number this time around.
The all-stater was phenomenal for start to finish as she pounded down an awe-inspiring 31 kills – one shy of her career best (32) that she turned in last season against Aurora Christian — as she led the Lady Norsemen back to state after an amazing 25-23, 24-26, 25-20 victory over an incredibly tough Lady Bulldogs squad Friday evening during the Westminster Christian Class 1A Supersectional here in Elgin.
"Madi was just beyond unbelievable tonight and I said to her before the match during warm-ups I know you weren't happy with your performance against Durand in the third place game," said NHS veteran coach Tonya Grayson. "But during this match don't let them forget your name again and she certainly did not throughout this match. We were so mentally tough as a team and to get some redemption against a great ballclub like Durand and making it back to state for the second year in a row is another dream come true."
Even though Malone's heroics stood incredibly tall as undoubtedly the player of the match, she had a ton of help from her teammates. Freshman phenom Megan Williams hammered in 11 kills, while junior Mattie Chapman joined the triumphant trio of hitters in double digit kills with 10 winners.
Senior setter Olivia Nelson was an assist machine dishing up a mind-boggling 44 helpers mostly to the triumvirate that was headed by Malone's hitting dominance.
"Olivia was just amazing and I had all the confidence in her to get me the ball and she did it so well tonight," Malone said. "She also was able to get it to Megan and Mattie too so it was just a great combination all the way around with her setting and all of us hitting."
Newark's defense wasn't too bad either as junior libero Meggie Scott led the way with 17 digs as the Lady Norsemen (38-2) now advance to the state finals where they'll battle Grayville (27-9) in Friday's first Class 1A semifinal matchup set for 9 a.m. back again at Redbird.
Durand (35-3) bows out after a tremendous season which saw Malone really take over the match and will her team to victory.
"We played very tough against a great team that has an amazing player and we weren't able to stop her tonight as best we tried," said DHS coach Molly Kelsey. "They seemed to go to her (Malone) wherever she was and there wasn't much hiding it. She's their go-to player and credit to them for finding a way to beat us this season."
All three sets were tough as nails. Malone smashed down eight kills early in the first set but Newark still trailed 23-20 before junior Naomi Sweeney toed the serving line and reeled off five service winners which included an ace, two kills by senior Alyssa Gittins, and a pair of winners by Malone the second of which came on set point to put the Lady Norsemen up 1-0 after an impressive rally that closed out Set 1.
"I just wanted to get the ball in play and let everyone else do the rest," Sweeney said. "Our setting and hitting was remarkable and we came back to get that first set."
Malone added 10 more kills in game two which put Newark ahead 24-22 with a pair of match points in hand. But after a Durand timeout the Lady Bulldogs closed out the set with a 4-0 run that evened up the proceedings.
But the Lady Norsemen never trailed in Set 3 as Williams and Chapman proved vital at the net hitting on three kills apiece to take a 21-15 lead after William's left-side winner.
"I just wanted to contribute as much as I could tonight being a freshman," Williams said. "I was pretty proud of the way I played especially in the third set."
Durand closed the gap to 24-20 after a 5-3 mini run, but Malone slammed the door on the match with an emphatic left-side kill after a deftly placed assist by Nelson on match point.
Durand received a team-best 15 kills from McKenzie Damon, 11 off the hands of Katie Nevdal and seven from Hannah Proctor.
"Getting back to state is what we set out to do at the beginning of the year," Grayson said. "We were disappointed at losing two games at state last season but we were committed to doing what we could to get back there this year and here we are after an incredible effort. Hopefully we can bring a state championship home this season."