As New Prairie navigated its way to the Class 3A volleyball semistate last season, each step brought unknown territory, uncharted waters for the Cougars.

"It was our first time going, so none of us knew the feeling," senior Katie Hancock said.

Hancock, Elise Swistek, Josie Troy and Ellie Michiaels were all key members of New Prairie's sectional and regional championships, and that background in those high-pressure moments should serve them well this time around.

"Last year will help, especially the kids who were on the team, in feeling more confident," coach Jordan Staus said. "They'd never experienced it before. Volleyball is so up and down, it's such a rollercoaster, within a game, throughout the season. You tell them to just take it a match at a time, go in respecting each opponent, play hard and hopefully it works out in your favor."

The 2018 run came with a few surprises, an element that the Cougars won't have on their side this time around. By the same token, New Prairie isn't a lead pipe lock to repeat. The sectional appears to be a tossup between NP and South Bend St. Joseph, which outlasted the Cougars in five sets in the regular season.

"No one expected it last year," Staus said. "We made our mark and now we're the ones people are looking at. You never know how you're going to play, so we're never going to underestimate an opponent. I never let a team go in acting like they already have a match won. You have to work hard for everything you get, and that makes it that much sweeter when you do win."

In some respects, Swistek believes the Cougars are an even better squad than the one that made it to the final four last season.

"We'll be more prepared since we've seen it before," she said. "We know what we have to do. Our defense is a lot better, our serve receive definitely. We've got a lot of good hitters. We're running different plays, back row attacks. We're more consistent." 

Hancock also likes the mental make-up of the team to go with its physical talents.

"I feel like our team chemistry is pretty good," she said. "There will still be some nerves, but we'll be able to handle it better. We have more experience practicing, getting ready. This has been one of my favorite teams to play with. We've had a pretty good season and I feel like we have the potential to do a lot of good things."

New Prairie has had to incorporate newcomers into its rotation, and Staus feels good about how youngsters like Haley Robinson will handle the moment.

"I've used the whole mentality that they're up here for a reason," Staus said. "The mentality is to be tough on the court, be focused. Don't get caught up in the emotion of the game, just do what you're supposed to do."

While the Cougars are equipped to make another deep run, Staus puts no undue burden on them to match last year's success.

"I try not to compare seasons," she said. "Teams always change. The dynamic changes. It's good to never be satisfied with your play. That's the mentality I have. I always believe that athletes want to get better."

New Prairie (24-7) opens play in the St. Joe Sectional in Thursday's second match against Washington with John Glenn awaiting the winner. The host Indians are on the other side of the bracket.

"We know it'll be tough, but I feel like we'll be ready," Swistek said. "Coach always says to focus on the first match, then we'll go from there and prepare for whatever happens."

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