Before the season began for the Stillwater Area High School volleyball team, coach Michele Parker talked about how her team had moved up into the middle of the pack in the Suburban East Conference (SEC) last season. She said the focus for this year was taking another step forward as a team and as a program and competing for the conference title.

The Ponies did exactly that this season, finishing 18-10 (6-2 SEC) and tied for second in the tough SEC.

The jump wasn't unnoticed. Last week, the SEC handed out their postseason volleyball awards, and four very deserving Stillwater seniors were honored.

Captains Carrie Fisher, Lyndsey Dixon and Colleen Kopel were all named to the All-SEC team, and senior libero Michelle Eller earned honorable mention honors.

"It's a compliment to the players, they definitely deserve it," said Parker.

Each senior brought special talents to the court in addition to their excellent leadership. Dixon and Kopel were both excellent hitters this season, and they continually seemed to come through with big kills and blocks when the Ponies needed them. Fisher was superb as the team's primary setter and Eller excelled in her serve receive and passing.

In addition to the conference honors, Stillwater held a team banquet last week to present team awards as well, and to honor the seniors.

"It's really a senior night, it's their last opportunity to celebrate being part of something, and a final farewell," said Parker of the team's banquet. "It's really a night for them and their parents."

At the banquet, the coaches passed out three awards that the players voted on, one voted on by the coaches, and several statistical awards.

Kopel was named the Most Improved Player by her teammates. Her peers named Fisher the team's MVP for the second straight season, and Eller was given the Pony Award, which is also voted on by the team and honors someone who is a great teammate with a positive attitude.

The coaching staff presented Dixon with the Coaches' Award, which Parker said is similar to the Pony Award and honors a girl who is positive, coachable, hard working, a good teammate and easy to work with.

The statistic awards brought little or no surprise. Dixon was named the team's number one hitter and blocker, Fisher was the top setter, Eller was the best digger and passer and junior Ashley Lindquist took home honors as the team's top server.

The impact this year's seniors had on the Stillwater volleyball program was far greater than statistics and awards, and Parker said they have helped bring the program along in just a few short years.

"The seniors can remember their first year and how different it is now," she said. " The girls gained respect and the community excitement for Stillwater volleyball; people in the community are always commenting on it now."

Parker said that the reason for the seniors' success was their attitude and their unparalleled work ethic.

"This was the hardest working class from the first girl to the last and they all contributed 100 percent, " she said. "They've never missed any of our activities, optional practices, clinics, camps."

And while Parker is ecstatic that her team has moved into the upper echelon of the SEC, she still prioritizes having fun and loving the game, and would never want it any other way.

"I hear from parents and players how much they love being part of the team and how much volleyball has made a difference," Parker said. "We could win conference, but I still would want to hear the girls say that."

Thanks to this year's senior class and all the girls coming back, Parker may not be far off from having it both ways.

Matt Higgins is at 651-777-3830 and at sports@stillwatercourier.com.