HARTSBURG — Society doesn't appreciate the benefits of aging as much as it should, but Jennifer Hayes does.
Her Hartsburg-Emden High School volleyball team was pretty good last year at 32-7, but another year of maturation has done wonders for the Stags, who take a 35-4 record into the Class 1A state tournament at Redbird Arena.
When asked what her team is doing better, Hayes said, "We're just older. We lost one senior. Everybody else came back."
A six-time state qualifier, Hartem (enrollment 75) faces Decatur St. Teresa (28-10) in Friday's second semifinal at approximately 10:30 a.m. The first semi at 9 a.m. pits Newark (38-2) against Grayville (27-9).
"I know a lot of them put in a lot of time between the end of last season and the beginning of this season," Hayes said. "Our shirts say, 'Whatever it takes,' and that's exactly what they are doing."
Hartem has gone 652-243 since Hayes became coach at her alma mater 24 years ago. She also has coached this year's seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen to Illinois Elementary School Association state titles.
Those junior high crowns "put a winning mindset in our heads," said Memphis recruit Anna Hayes, the coach's 6-foot daughter. "We know how to win."
The younger Hayes ranks second in state history with 1,754 career kills. She leads the Pantagraph area this season (as she did as a sophomore and junior) with 6.1 kills per game on .483 hitting.
"Anna is a great player, not only because she's my daughter, but because she is so versatile," the coach said. "She's as good at serve receive and defending as she is on offense and blocking."
Anna Hayes, who can jump and touch 9 feet, 10 inches high, originally committed to Wisconsin-Green Bay, but switched to Memphis after it hired Green Bay coach Sean Burdette. She says the Stags have grown since losing in last year's Sweet 16.
"We're more of a team this year," she said. "We love each other. We work together. We're just more cohesive.
"We're very goal oriented. At the beginning of the season, we knew what we wanted to do and we worked our butts off until we did it."
The other half of Hartem's 1-2 punch is 5-10 sophomore Grace Beekman, who averages 6.2 assists and 3.6 kills per game.
"She's definitely a Division I caliber setter," Jennifer Hayes said. "I'm just lucky she can hit, too."
Patrolling the back row is 5-2 senior libero Lexi Barry, who averages 3.5 digs per game "as one of the best defenders" Hayes has coached.
Anchoring the middle of the net is 5-10 sophomore Alaina Bradburn, who ranks third on the team with 139 kills. Starting on the right side is 5-7 junior Sami Perschall. When Beekman hits, setting chores fall to 5-8 junior Lilly Escobedo.
New to the team are sisters Avah and Izzy Classen, transfers from Delavan. The freshman Avah is a backup setter while Izzy, a senior, can hit or play the back row. Rounding out the primary passers is 5-4 junior Emily Craig.
The Stags have won seven straight since a 22-25, 25-23, 15-13 loss to Quincy Notre Dame. Other setbacks came against Deer Creek-Mackinaw, Newark and Lafayette of Wildwood, Mo.
"I've learned something from each one of them," said Jennifer Hayes, who saw major holes during the first loss to Dee-Mack. "I changed my whole lineup after the first week."
Hayes shrugs off the loss to Newark as a "bad night" and the setback against Lafayette because "they were just better." The loss to Quincy Notre Dame showed the importance of finishing.
"At the end when you are tied 23-23, you've got to do whatever you need to to finish it, and we didn't that time," she said. "That was a good lesson."
Hayes also learned a lot from a 19-25, 25-22, 15-10 win over Decatur St. Teresa last month.
"They are a great team," she said. "They are quick. We've got to get a good block up and really be more offensive than defensive."
In other words, the Stags should rely on all they've learned while coming of age.