By Kyle Daubs
In 2011, Mark Jackley saw the talent in the making.
After five years of successfully coaching volleyball for Mattoon Middle School, the longtime Mattoon High School baseball coach made a decision to follow the talent. In his final season coaching volleyball at MMS, the eighth-grade crew finished third in the IESA Finals.
That was part of his decision to help make the jump to the high school.
“At the time, I had coached those girls and had some pretty good success at the middle school,” Jackley said. “I knew the talent coming up was good and I had reached all my goals as a volleyball official, officiating a state tournament. I just thought: why not do something different?”
Over the course of seven years, Jackley finished with an overall record of 197-61, five regional championships, two Sweet Sixteen appearances, one sectional championship, and an appearance in the Elite Eight.
However, the stretch from 2012-14 that included three successive 30-win seasons, accumulating a mark of 94-19 and an Elite Eight appearance in 2014, goes down as one of the greatest accomplishments in Coles County volleyball history.
After going 23-9 in the first year of the Jackley-led regime, the Lady Wave began to make the transition to the Apollo Conference. It was the first time in school history that Mattoon would not be playing in the Big 12 Conference.
The team had lost two Big 12 Conference selections in Hannah Sinclair and Kayla Jacobs but retained a nice core of athletes. Senior setter Jamie Packer had committed to Illinois-Springfield, while outside hitter Taylor Smith and libero Katelyn Fisher were back after playing as freshmen.
The group also regained junior Leah Buck, who led the team in blocks (52) as a sophomore, as well as junior outside hitter Shelby Cox and sophomore hitter Samantha Thompson.
For a team that relied heavily on younger players, Packer remembers the team had potential.
“I don’t want to say we expected to be better because we moved to Apollo, but we knew it would be different,” said Packer. “We still had the majority of our team back from the previous season, and it wasn’t like that was a bad season either.”
The Mattoon squad was unbeatable for a long stretch. Mattoon rattled off 20 consecutive victories, which included winning the Mattoon Invitational and the Decatur Eisenhower Charlie Scanavino Invite. At the time, Cox said that team play was the main component to their success.
“We play as a team a lot better,” Cox told me in 2012. “We’re all a unit instead of individual cliques. The summer was crucial because all that weightlifting helped, but we are really playing together well.”
Effingham handed Mattoon its first loss, 13-25, 25-23, 25-23. The match featured the infamous “quiet timeout.” In the third set, Mattoon took a 10-0 lead, and Effingham’s coach at the time, Lauri Bohnhoff called a timeout and didn’t say a single word to her team.
The Lady Hearts responded by outscoring Mattoon 25-13 to snap Mattoon’s 20-game winning streak. Mattoon eventually prevailed as the conference champion after Effingham lost a few more matches on the way while Mattoon won the rest of its matches.
The Lady Wave clinched sole possession of the Apollo with a blowout victory over Paris on Senior Night, 25-7, 25-4. Seniors Micaela Polston, Allie Diltz, and Packer combined for eight aces, but, to this day, Packer still credits the younger crew.
“I’d say Taylor and Sammy were our biggest threats,” said Packer. “We had a younger player in Taylor that eventually went to EIU. She still got up as a younger player. She made my job easier.”
In the postseason, Mattoon rallied from a 23-13 deficit to sweep Charleston in the semifinal. In the Regional Championship, Mattoon took care of Effingham, 25-16, 25-15. At one point in the match, the Lady Wave trailed 7-1; however, according to former JG-TC writer Brian Nielsen, Jackley told his players to get the ball to their setter, Packer, more efficiently.
Packer did her part in the match by securing 24 assists, while teammates Taylor Smith (12 kills) and Riley Phipps (7 kills) took care of the rest.
Mattoon made the Sweet 16 after defeating Rochester, 25-18, 27-25. In the second set, Smith provided clutch kills to give the Lady Wave leads of 24-23, and 25-24. Phipps eventually closed the game with her kill.
However, the Lady Wave ran into a buzz saw in the Sectional Championship. Jacksonville, the eventual fourth-place state finisher, closed out Mattoon, 25-7, 25-20. The team was led by future Illinois State University hitter Jaelyn Keene. After the game, Jackley told Nielsen: “That’s the best team I’ve ever seen.”
However, the loss helped set up a special moment down the road.
“The second set, we felt we could compete with them,” said hitter/defensive specialist Brianna “Goose” Butler. “I think that match helped us when we won two years later.”
The 31-4 record was the best showing by an MHS volleyball team since the 1987 squad that finished with a 30-1 record and captured regional and sectional championships. The best part was that everyone expected a greater sequel. The babies weren’t babies anymore, and the numbers proved it.
Smith, now a junior, had led the area with 4.2 kills per set her previous season. More specifically, Smith finished her sophomore season with 308 kills, 255 digs, and 60 aces. She was joined by Cox, who was a First-Team All-Apollo selection with 129 kills and 42 blocks.
Cox and Buck were a dangerous combo in the middle, while Fisher, coming off a season with 184 digs and was entering her third year at libero. However, the team took a hit when Samantha Thompson tore her meniscus, keeping her out for the majority of the season. Sarah Jensen and Butler subsequently took on larger roles.
Even with a few new pieces, the team managed to break its own school record again with a 32-6 record.
“Having Taylor was obviously important, but the community needs to know that we had a lot of great pieces for those three years,” said Jackley. “Taylor was a dominant force when you needed a kill, but we had a lot of good pieces that set up those moments offensively.”
The Green Wave won a sixth straight Mattoon Invitational and second straight Eisenhower Invitational. Going into the season, Jackley knew that the team had potential so Mattoon entered Effingham’s BSN Nike Crossroads Classic, considered one of the best tournaments in the state.
“Our junior year, we realized that we could really do something,” Butler said. “When we got our senior year, we knew we just had to keep on pushing. Crossroads was amazing because we played some really good teams. I remember being nervous because there was no room for mistakes when you play competition like that.”
Mattoon finished second in the Silver Pool after going 3-2. The team defeated Naperville Central, Normal University and, finally, Edwardsville in a close game, 26-24, 25-23. Mattoon lost to Indianapolis Chatard and Bloomington.
After the tournament, Mattoon secured a victory over volleyball powerhouse St. Joseph-Ogdon. Mattoon trailed 18-15 before officials forced St Joe’s libero to leave the game to change jerseys, citing the libero jersey was not recognizable enough. The sway in momentum led to a 25-23, 25-22 victory. St. Joe’s coach criticized the officials in the media.
In Apollo Conference action, only one team gave the Lady Wave fits – Salem. Both matches went to three sets.
The first time, Mattoon lost the opening set 25-20 before bouncing back to defeat Salem, 25-15, 25-10. Later, Mattoon defeated Salem, 25-17, 23-25, 25-11, in a game that featured 19 kills from Smith and seven kills from Cox and Buck.
“We just had our egos too high,” said Butler. “We knew we were better than them, but we let it get to us. One thing that Coach Jackely was really good at was getting players out when they didn’t do well. Everyone can account that Jackley would bench you if you didn’t perform. He gave you another chance, but it also gave us a reality check.”
A perfect Apollo Conference record netted another championship, but the team rolled into the postseason with uncertainty. In a loss to Taylorville, Smith went down with an ankle injury. It forced her out of a loss to Sacred Heart Griffin, but Smith rallied to return in the Regional Championship against Charleston.
Mattoon hosted the sectional, but Rochester found revenge by defeating the Lady Wave on its home floor, 25-23, 11-25, 25-22. Rochester was led by Presbyterian College recruit Rachel Elshoff’s 15 kills.
A school-record 32 wins was soured in the Round of 32, which is precisely why the following season sticks out in Jackley’s mind as the best ever.
“The girls were so close to getting a sectional championship,” said Jackley. “That’s why 2014 sticks out so much to me.”
Before the season began, Smith chose to play at Eastern Illinois University after leading a group of seniors who had gone 86-19 over three seasons in which it won two Apollo and two regional titles.
In 2013, Smith set a school-record 364 kills, while Fisher set a school-record 330 digs. However, the team had some holes to fill. Cox, a multi All-Apollo selection, was gone, as was Buck, who had set a school record for blocks (56).
The group found their replacements.
Smith could play setter, but she was primarily used as a hitter. Butler could contribute at all ends of the floor. Samantha Thompson was fully healthy, while her 5-foot-10 sister, Sierra Thompson, found a rotational role.
The younger Thompson (who eventually played basketball at Bowling Green) was just coming off a freshman track season in which she finished ninth in the state at 200 meters. Throw in a seasoned setter in Jensen, as well as the help of Emily Watson, the depth chart looked solid.
For the most part, this group of seniors had been playing together for years. It was do or die time, which made the team’s Elite 8 appearance the perfect ending to this story.
“I don’t want to sound cliche, but we were friends on and off the court, so that had a big part in it,” said Samantha Thompson. “Obviously, I see my sister all the time, but for the majority of those girls, we are still friends today.”
After claiming the school’s seventh consecutive Mattoon Invitational, the Lady Wave cruised their way towards the Gold Bracket of Effingham’s BSN Nike Crossroads Classic. It was the best showing in school history after finishing in eighth place.
On Friday, Mattoon posted two wins over Normal University and Owensboro to play in the top bracket of the 24-team tournament. Mattoon played toe-to-toe with defending Class 3A state champion Wheaton St. Francis before falling, 25-18, 25-21.
Mattoon then lost to Bloomington, 25-13, 28-26, and – with little time to rest – lost to Champaign Centennial, 22-25, 25-19, 25-23. Smith was named to the all-tournament team after posting 60 kills combined over the course of the five matches.
The Lady Wave’s tough schedule continued down the stretch of the season. Mattoon fell to Chatham-Glenwood in the title game of the Decatur Eisenhower Charlie Scanavino Invite 11-25, 27-25, 15-13, which prompted a strong response from their head coach.
“At the midpoint of the season I know our team can play with anybody but one area that we have to get better at is just getting too relaxed after the first set,” Jackley told Nielsen at the time. “It’s happened in a number of matches. Most of our matches we start strong and win the first set convincingly and the second let teams play with us.”
Going into conference play, coaches from Taylorville, Mount Zion, and Charleston all told Nielsen that Mattoon was the clear cut favorite. Mount Zion’s Jay McAtee even said, “Mattoon is the favorite until someone beats them.”
Mount Zion nearly was that team losing to Mattoon 25-21, 23-25, 29-27. In a rare off game from Smith, it was Sammy Thompson that stepped up with 12 kills.
“I always remember that Mount Zion was one of our tougher opponents,” said Butler. “We always had to play them twice and we knew the majority of that group after playing them for five years. Playing Mount Zion was always intense and super close.”
The lone blemish during the regular season came against Charleston. After the match, Charleston’s coach, Justin Tomaska, referred to having a 26-page scouting report. Lauren Nadler’s 21 kills led a 25-23, 23-25, 25-23 win over the Lady Wave, which was the first time Charleston had won over Mattoon since 2006.
“I still remember that because one of my friends told me they had a 26-page scouting report on us,” said Thompson. “I was like, ‘what?’ Then, she showed me. Credit to him for doing his homework on us.”
However, the loss particularly stands out to Thompson for another reason.
“I will never forget that game because I had to leave the high school in an ambulance because we thought my gallbladder stopped working,” said Thompson. “In the middle of the government, I asked to go to the nurse and we thought my appendix was going to burst. Instead, they fixed me up, I came back and we played, and then we lost.”
Mattoon eventually clinched the Apollo, but stumbled into the postseason after dropping two of five matches at the Decatur St. Teresa Invited. Mattoon began the day beating Iroquois West 25-15, 25-17 and Danville 25-16, 25-6 before losing to eventual champion Mahomet-Seymour 25-22, 15-25, 15-13.St. Thomas More defeated the Lady Green Wave 26-24, 18-25, 15-8 in the semifinals before Mattoon topped Charleston 25-23, 25-17.
“If I remember correctly, and I don’t want to use this as an excuse,” there was a lot going on at that time,” said Thompson. “It was senior year and we had Homecoming going on. We were distracted.”
However, Mattoon recovered and cruised past Olney and Charleston to three-peat in the regional. Mattoon then dominated Benton on its home floor in the sectional semifinal, 25-21, 25-17. Mattoon earned the final point after an illegal substitution from Benton.
That set up potentially the greatest game in Mattoon’s volleyball history.
On the way to Benton, which is about a two-hour drive, Thompson described the bus ride as “intense.” This was going to be the moment that this group was going to cement its legacy.
“I remember sitting with Fish, Bre, Taylor and Sarah and we were all wide awake,” said Thompson. “Everyone else was sleeping, and I looked at Taylor and asked, Should I do it?’ She told me to do it, so I got up and screamed: ‘It’s sectional time!’ I scared my sister so bad she said she nearly peed herself. I just knew, it was time to get hyped.”
Mattoon was faced with the task of defeating Columbia, who was 33-5 record and brought a student section that made plenty of noise.
“They had the big crowd and we just had our parents,” Smith told Nielsen after the game. “They kept calling out our names. The gym was rocking for us, but we stayed focused.”
Mattoon battled to a 25-21 victory, but dropped the second set 25-22. All the blood, sweat, and tears leading up this moment wasn’t going to stop anyone from that team.
“That week leading up to the sectional final, we had a dodgeball tournament and I slammed my head on the court,” said Butler. “I think we suspected I had a concussion, but I wasn’t going to say anything. This was the most important game of our lives. Once we got to the third set, we knew we had to leave everything on the line.”
That’s exactly what the team did. Butler recalls that she and Fisher tried to keep Smith upfront as much as possible. Butler called it “the best defense Fish and I have ever played.”
“I remember diving into the chairs to get a ball because I had never wanted to win a game so bad in my life,” Butler said. “I remember being down a lot in that match, like seven points at one point. The whole time, we just kept huddling up and pressing that we needed just one more point.”
After crawling back from a seven-point deficit, the Lady Wave tied the game.
“Sarah Jensen and I subbed out at the same time, and I remember that gym was so dang hot,” Thompson said. “We were going so hard against a tough team. It was 24/7 from all of us. I remember passing out for a split second by the cooler and Sarah caught me. The trainer wanted me to stay out, but Jackley wouldn’t let her. Jackley told her ‘she’s fine.’ I just remember telling myself that we had to do this.”
In the end, the Lady Wave pulled away to defeat Columbia 25-17 in the final set to clinch the school’s first Sectional Championship since 1987. Smith finished the game with 24 kills and 18 digs, delivering a final kill to secure the win.
“Once that ball dropped, Bri, Katelyn, Taylor, Sarah, Lexi Rankin and I just dropped to the floor,” said Thompson. “Bri and I just start bawling. It was the furthest we had ever made it. I share that picture every year in the fall.”
Added Butler: “It was so special to me because it was almost like an ephiany. I had never given more effort in a game than that game. Everyone knew how hard Coach Jackley was one me in practice. In that moment, I knew that this was the moment why Jackley pushed me all those times.”
At the end of the match, Jackley never swayed. He knew that this group could get it done.
“We had two tough calls go against us, and I think I was more upset than the girls were,” Jackley told Nielsen after the match. “They just kept playing. Going into the third set there was determination in their eyes like ‘We’re going to get this done.’”
Powerhouse Breese Mater Dei ended the Lady Wave’s season at 31-9 with a 25-16, 25-16 win. Mater Dei’s coach, Chad Rakers, told Nielsen that Smith was one of the better players in Illinois and that “we had to take her off her game.”
That’s precisely what they did, limiting her to four kills. It was the final time Smith, among others, would throw on a Lady Wave jersey. She ended the season with a school-record 456 kills and 378 digs.
“Our seniors have a lot to feel good about,” Jackley told Niesen after the match. “Our seniors took the loss hard but you talk about the last three seasons where most of them have been starters. They’ve had three consecutive (Apollo) Conference championships and three regional championships and an Elite Eight. How many schools in the state can say they have won 30 matches three years in a row? You can probably count those on one hand.”
Jackley, who now coaches baseball at Cumberland High School, has seen plenty in his coaching career that dates back to 1990. In terms of volleyball, he doesn’t know when the next time Mattoon will see a squad like that.
“It’s hard for me to say, but I doubt it,” Jackley said. “It wasn’t just the cohesiveness they had. Those girls put in the time during the summer. Workouts in the summer are hit and miss because of vacations and summer jobs. Those three years, those group of girls religiously came to everything we had planned and dedicated themselves to being great.”
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