CHAMPAIGN — Maddie Weldon could have been a lot of things: angry, discouraged, frustrated.
Instead, she demonstrated maturity beyond her years and was accepting of a situation she would rather have not been in.
Five years ago, Weldon was one of the Jefferson Middle School volleyball players headed to the state tournament. She had shared playing time with a teammate much of the season in a two-setter alignment.
“Three-fourths of the way through the season, we changed to a 5-1 (offense) and sat her out,” said Stan Bergman, the Jefferson coach.
Jefferson won state. Weldon didn’t play in the championship match.
“It was definitely a setback (personally), but I understood,” Weldon said, “and I was there to support my team.”
The Parkland College recruit will provide more than verbal encouragement this weekend when Centennial makes its first state semifinal appearance. She will be the starting setter in the Class 3A match Friday (4:30 p.m.) against Wheaton St. Francis at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena.
Eight of Centennial’s nine seniors were members of the championship Jefferson team. The lone exception is one of the other setters, Paulina Nottingham, who attended Champaign St. Matthew.
Weldon speculates she might not be where she is today if not for the way her middle school career ended.
“It made me a stronger player and person,” she said. “It built my character and helped me see how both sides are. I’ve grown as a setter.”
Bergman couldn’t be happier with Weldon’s determination and fortitude.
“We’re fortunate she stayed dedicated to herself and her family,” Bergman said. “At that time, we had to make somewhat of a change.
That could have been a driving force to get out and prove herself.
“Now she is thriving and enjoying every moment.”
Weldon’s impact has been tremendous. At a school with six consecutive 30-win seasons, she has secured a top-five spot on the school’s list of all-time assists leaders. She has 785.
Since middle school, Weldon said, “we’ve all grown as people and players.”
Teammate Kara Johnson watches tapes of the middle school matches for giggles.
“We thought we were so good,” Johnson said, “but now we laugh at ourselves. Now, we’re a lot smarter with the ball.”
For Kelsey Olion, there’s a direct connection between the past and the present.
“It’s fun to see how people’s mannerisms are still the same,” Olion said.
Senior Allie Shannon finds herself more appreciative of the opportunity that awaits this weekend.
“When we were in eighth grade, it was such a big deal,” she said. “In high school, we realize (middle school) state was not as great as we thought. That makes this better. There are a lot more high school teams that are really good.”
Some of those former middle school players have developed even more than they imagined five years ago.
Olion was strictly a defensive specialist then, an obvious position for someone who was 4-foot-11 near the end of her seventh-grade year.
Now nearly 5-9, she is in her first year of playing all-around and has earned a scholarship to Missouri Western State University.
“I always liked hitting,” Olion said, “but I wasn’t as tall as I should have been.”
She had a feeling a growth spurt would happen.
“I had big feet,” she said, recalling the size-11 shoes she wore in eighth grade. She is now taller, but her shoe size is unchanged. It wasn’t difficult, she said, to hit from the right side this year. “In club, the focus has been on the all-around aspect, and I had my arm swing developed,” the left-hander said.
Shortly after Olion joined the front row for last year’s club season, she broke her little finger.
“It was like my initiation,” she said. “I still tape it.”
Centennial’s opening match at state is against perennial power St. Francis (seven state championships), a school the Chargers defeated in three sets in early September.
“They will be more fired up,” Olion said. “That’s why we’re working hard this week to make sure we can fight right back.”
Shannon said Centennial’s confidence from the previous win is irreplaceable.
“We know what it takes to beat them,” she said, “and we know we’re good enough to beat them.”