BENTON — Fairfield senior Madeline Gawthrop isn't always calm and cool on the volleyball court.
"I tend to tense up a lot and get really nervous," said Gawthrop. "I have to calm myself down and relax."
When the nerves subside, Gawthrop contributes in several areas and provides leadership for the Falcons.
Fairfield needed Gawthrop's presence at last Saturday's Class 2A Regional.
The Falcons had to work through momentum swings in both of their matches. At the end of the day, Fairfield was a regional champion for the first time since 2012. In the semifinals, Fairfield outlasted Rochester, 25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 23-25, 15-7. In the championship match, the Falcons rallied past Andrean, 14-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-22.
"There were tough times and we had to work through those challenges," said Gawthrop. "Teams scouted us and we had to figure out our opponents strengths and weaknesses. There were times I was caught doing things incorrectly. But I thought I did pretty well. My goal was to lead my team and limit my mistakes and push my team forward.
Gawthrop has pushed her Falcons (24-12) into the semi-state this Saturday at 1 p.m. against No. 2-ranked Wapahani (30-5). The match will be played at Plymouth High School. With a win, Fairfield can advance to the state finals for the first time since 2010.
Wapahani has won five state titles, with the last state championship coming in 2016. Fairfield was state runner-up in 2006 and 2010.
"We know about their record," Gawthrop said about Wapahani. "We have some videos of them that we'll look at and study and we'll work on things that we need to do well to beat them.
"At practice, we've talked about chasing the state finals. We realized if we wanted to go to state we had to work as a team and be a family and push through. To accomplish our goal we had to give it our best and go hard. We had to encourage each other and put it all out there on the floor."
That mindset helped the Falcons improve on last year's 21-13 record and erase the disappointment from losing to NorthWood, 25-22, 25-23, 25-15, in the first round of the Class 3A sectionals.
"This year we're clicking a lot more as a team," Gawthrop said. "The team bonding has been there. We have a common goal of winning state and going to the next level."
Gawthrop has played every position but middle hitter and libero during her four years on the varsity.
"Being a right-side hitter is my true love," Gawthrop said. "As a left-handed hitter it's the easiest position to play. I play that spot in club volleyball. That's my home and comfort spot.
"This is my first year being an outside hitter. I've had to learn timing and when to contact the ball. It's just a lot different then playing the normal right side. You have a different perspective on things. It's kind of tricky and you have to adjust. Most lefties aren't outside hitters. Blockers on the other side of the net have to adjust their technique. I've heard that it's difficult to pass off a serve from a lefty because of the spin."
Gawthrop stood out both offensively and defensively at the regional. She had 16 kills and 18 digs in the final against Andrean and totaled 21 kills and 26 digs against Rochester.
"She has improved greatly during her career," said Fairfield coach Brittany Herschberger. "Anyone who has seen her play knows she is a big threat at the net and this has only improved as she has gotten stronger and smarter as a player. She has learned to be a smarter hitter over the past year and not rely solely on pounding the ball to get kills. Her ball control and passing has improved over the past three years tremendously. She has also learned to hit the floor on defense, which is great because she reads things really well, so she usually sees what is going to happen before other players."
Gawthrop may have made even a bigger contribution outside of her play.
"I've really improved my leadership skills because I've really worked on that," Gawthrop said. "I think I've become more mentally tough. I think playing all the different positions I've learned to appreciate what others do on the court. I can help my teammates get past their mistakes and move on."
Gawthrop led by example with her willingness to change her role on the court.
"She plays left-side (outside) hitter this year," Herschberger said. "Before this year she had always played right-side. A week before the season we had some girls quit the team and we had to move Madeline to the outside to try to get her the ball as much as we could. She adjusted really well to this change, took it in stride and embraced her new role as she knew it was the best thing for the team."
Gawthrop, who also owns an impressive 3.7 grade-point average, keeps playing volleyball after the high school season is over. She plays on a club team during the winter.
"I absolutely want to play volleyball in college," Gawthrop said. "It has been a dream of mine to play volleyball in college since I was a little kid. I haven't made a decision yet on where I want to go."
A break from volleyball comes for Gawthrop during the spring, as she plays doubles for the tennis team.
"The atmosphere for tennis is a little bit different," Gawthrop said. "I get a little bit of a break from volleyball. Tennis is a competitive sport but it's relaxing."
But relaxing isn't on Gawthrop's mind for Saturday. She also motivated to go to the state finals because it's very important to her second-year head coach Brittany Herschberger. Brittany is the daughter of Fairfield volleyball coaching legend Carla Herschberger. Brittany's sisters (Kelsey and Courtney) were players for Carla on the Fairfield teams that made the state finals.
"Coach hasn't got a state finals ring," Gawthrop said. "It's a jealousy thing between (Brittany) and her sisters.
"There's a big volleyball tradition at Fairfield and we want to continue that tradition."