In early August, Sterling athletic director Greg King told volleyball coach Dale Dykeman that Musgrove Fieldhouse was going to host a Class 3A supersectional.
Right then, #grindto40 was born.
“It wasn’t about having 40 wins, it was about getting to the 40th match,” Dykeman explained. “We knew if we could get to the 40th match at home in front of our home crowd, where we play so well, for a chance to go to state – that’s all we could ask for.”
The Golden Warriors marched through the regular season with superior talent and a laid-back style of coaching from Dykeman, eventually reaching their 40th match right where they wanted to be.
Roughly 1,350 tickets were sold for Sterling’s supersectional match against Morton – a sea of gold and navy blue, with a couple hundred red shirts supporting the visitors sprinkled in.
The Warriors exceeded their coach’s expectations in a dominant 25-12, 25-7 win over the Potters to reach the state tournament. Unfazed by its first trip to Redbird Arena, Sterling bested traditional powerhouses Joliet Catholic and Belleville Althoff to become the 3A champions.
For guiding Sterling to a 41-1 record and its first state title, Dale Dykeman is Sauk Valley Media’s Coach of the Year.
Dykeman, 38, is now 228-40-1 (.848 winning percentage) in seven seasons at Sterling, with six straight regional titles and three sectional crowns.
Yet some might say that his job was easy this year with the amount of talent at his disposal.
Josi Borum is headed to Chicago State to continue her volleyball and basketball career, Lexi Rodriguez verbally committed to Nebraska before her first high school match, and Bree and Brook Borum appear to be in line for Division I offers if their play continues.
Throw in the likes of Grace and Gretchen Gould, talented sophomores Kierra Collins and Macie Gebhardt, and serving specialists Genea Garza and Jaylynn Razo, and the Warriors were clearly loaded.
“You’re probably looking at a team with four Division I players, and a couple that if their main interest was volleyball, they could play in college,” Dykeman said. “This is definitely the most talented team I’ve ever coached.”
Dykeman has had top-level talent in previous years, but shifted his coaching style this season thanks to a roster rich in experience. Having Josi Borum and Gretchen Gould as captains helped in a relatively smooth ride through the regular season and postseason.
“I was a little more hands-off this year,” he said. “We had really hard practices, so I wasn’t as fast with them when it came to timeouts in the matches. I wanted the natural leaders to lead. I think that’s why Gretchen and Josi were so good late in the season. We gave them every opportunity to be the leaders they needed to be, and they did a phenomenal job.”
Dykeman felt pressure to deliver a 40th match to the Sterling community, but knew he could pass on more responsibility to his captains.
“At the beginning of the year, he told Josi and me that we were not only going to be team captains, but program captains,” Gretchen Gould said. “He wanted leaders from within.”
There were some small adjustments to make during timeouts, but more often than not, the Warriors talked tactics. Only four teams took Sterling to three sets all season, so Dykeman felt comfortable with letting his team stop a rally rather than calling timeout.
“We were able to figure things out. He let us work the kinks out,” Gretchen Gould said. “I think that made us more successful, because we were able to learn more about how each other played. Towards the end, we didn’t really need timeouts.”
Sometimes when Sterling forced an opponent to take its second timeout of a set, Dykeman would let Josi Borum or Gretchen Gould lead the huddle for 30 seconds. Whether he led the huddle or not, smiles and laughs were often seen among the Warriors.
“I think his laid-back style helped us a lot,” Josi Borum said. “A coach that was strict would not have worked for us, because we’re such a laid-back group of girls. We just like to have fun, and that’s what we did all season.”
Dykeman also received plenty of help in the form of several offensive coaches, which gave his players the ability to receive more reps and feedback in practice.
Barb Wolfe-Cotes worked specifically with the servers. Crystal Rodriguez broke down every aspect of the game on film. Tami Borum ensured the timing between the setters and hitters was near perfect. Dykeman worked with defensive specialists, as well as every other facet of the game along with Stephanie Gibson.
Two younger assistants – Aaron Flick and Morgan Johnson – worked with the middle hitters, being that they both played the position at the collegiate level.
“That was huge when we had Coach Flick and Coach Johnson here because we could have one for each court,” Dykeman said. “When you put those two on our scout team, that’s a big block and a powerful hit on each pin. They challenged our back row and hitters more than anybody we saw.”
Ample space inside Musgrove Fieldhouse allowed the team to break down into four groups on four separate courts to begin practice. Two of the groups included a setter and several hitters, another was focused on blocking, and the other saw defensive specialists honing their craft.
After 30 minutes of individual work, the team reconvened for a half-hour of in-system and out-of-system drills. The final 30 minutes of practice were reserved for serve-receive work.
As powerful as Sterling’s offense was, ball control, serving and receiving were the hallmarks of the Warriors’ practices.
“It sounds simple, but that’s what a lot of the game is,” Dykeman said. “Being able to keep teams out of system at the service line was huge down at state. I’ve been in gyms where the focus is on offense, but you can’t play offense without defense.”
Sterling won three tournaments in 2018 – including knocking off five highly-ranked squads to claim the Metea/Oswego Invite crown the first weekend of the season. One of those teams was Joliet Catholic.
“Winning Metea was a measuring stick,” Dykeman said. “We knew we had a great chance to see JCA. If we could win that, then we really were who we throught we were.”
The Warriors went on to win their second straight Rock Falls Invite and Sterling Invite titles, as their record reached 30-0 leading up to the annual Dixon Invite.
Instead of staying close to home, Dixon administrators let Sterling out of the tournament contract, allowing the Warriors to travel to the Plainfield Fall Classic. The field at Plainfield included 12 of the top 15 teams in Illinois at the time, according to MaxPreps.
The top eight teams in the state won their first two matches at Plainfield, including Sterling. However, the Warriors lost their first and only match of the year in the tournament quarterfinals, a 28-26, 25-19 defeat to Class 4A St. Charles North.
Sterling rebounded to win its final two matches at Plainfield, and wrapped up its third straight NIB-12 West title in closing the regular season.
A wake-up call was on tap in the Warriors’ first postseason match. Regional host Dixon pushed Sterling in the regional semifinals at Lancaster Gym, but the Warriors grinded out a 25-21, 25-20 victory over the Duchesses.
“Dixon played a really clean match, and touched us at the net defensively,” Dykeman said. “They were one of the teams that pushed us as hard as anybody in the postseason. The girls were forced to fight for everything they got.”
After the win, Dykeman watched his seniors talk about what was and what was not acceptable. Victory simply wasn’t good enough.
Laughs and smiles for the majority of the regular season shifted into laser-like focus and determination for the players. Dykeman showed more enthusiasm on the sideline, opting to pace and fist-pump more instead of relaxing in a chair.
Sterling showed off its depth and power over the next four matches to reach the state tournament – cruising past Rochelle, Woodstock North, Kaneland and Morton with decisive sweeps.
“These kids have done amazing things and won all sorts of accolades and awards,” Dykeman said. “But the one thing they hadn’t done was get to state. They wanted to get to state for the community.”
Once they got there, Dykeman’s approach to coaching his team at Redbird Arena was simple: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Warriors had the talent and depth to compete with Joliet Catholic and Althoff, meaning they didn’t have to break from the norm in Normal.
“We tried to keep things as normal as possible,” Dykeman said. “We broke down film the same way, and did our whiteboards and pregame warmups the same way. Everything off the court, like hotel and dinner arrangements, was the hard part. Stepping on the volleyball court was the easy part.”
Sterling will need to replace Josi Borum, Gretchen Gould, Garza and Razo next season, but Dykeman’s expectations remain the same. Another year at the helm means some new faces, but the same sort of grind.
“The goal for every team should be to go as far as you think you can go,” Dykeman said. “With the team we bring back, we have the possibility to get back to Redbird. I think for the next few years, state is going to be a serious goal for our program.”
• 38 years old
• Kewanee native, Wethersfield grad (played football and ran track)
• Western Illinois University graduate
• Driver’s education/health/PE teacher at Sterling
• Named to the inaugural class of the American Volleyball Coaches Association High School Region Coaches of the Year, one of 40 coaches in the U.S. to earn the honor