MICHIGAN CITY | Grace Connelly won a state championship as a freshman and has designs on another as a senior.
What happened in the two years in between has been a wild ride for the Marquette outside hitter.
Winning the state title became a distant memory after the Blazers failed to get out of the second round of sectional play in each of the last two seasons.
Despite a losing record, Marquette (17-19) rebounded this season, earning its 14th regional championship with a four-game win over Fort Wayne Blackhawk on Tuesday night. The Blazers had won 13 consecutive regional titles from 1997 to 2009.
“It was definitely a goal of mine to get us back to deep in the postseason,” Connelly said. “I knew we could do it, and I knew that if we all came together, we’d all believe in our team.”
Connelly is the lone senior for the Blazers in a year that began with the transition from former coach Troy Campbell to first-year coach Jan Fitzpatrick. Campbell left for New Prairie, and Fitzpatrick joined the program in late July along with new athletic director Anthony Mytas.
“We kind of came in the door running behind,” Fitzpatrick said. “If one of us didn’t know the answer, we were hoping the other did. We were behind in conditioning, behind in the basic stuff. I came together with the team and told them that we’d work hard, and we’ll figure it all out.”
Knowing what it took to be successful at a state level, Connelly went out of her way to work with Fitzpatrick in August to help lay the foundation for future success at Marquette, despite knowing her career was finished whenever the season came to a close.
“Grace identified herself as the lone senior and told me that she’d do whatever she could to help,” Fitzpatrick said. “That was senior leadership right there.”
Marquette’s schedule didn’t do anyone any favors as the Blazers dropped tough games to Penn and Mishawaka Marian in the opening weeks of the season. Overmatched in many of their nonconference games, the players stood tall knowing that they were playing to get better for later in the season.
“We knew that we had a good season and that going into the postseason, our record stopped mattering,” Connelly said. “Our slogan was, ‘Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing.’ That’s how we approached the season.”
Of the seven other teams remaining in the Class A playoffs, Marquette’s Saturday morning opponent Cowan has the worst record at 24-10. Fitzpatrick has explained to her team that no one gets to semistate that doesn’t belong there, even if she thinks her team was overlooked on the way to the final eight.
“What got us this far is that people have underestimated us,” Fitzpatrick said. “Maybe they saw the losing record and thought we played nothing but 1A schools. That gave us an edge, but I don’t know that I can use that anymore. We’re going to practice hard, increase our volleyball IQ as much as we can and go play with passion on Saturday.”