More experience, better depth and a more-focused approach enabled the Nevada volleyball team to turn the corner and make its second-ever state tournament appearance in 2013.
Under the guidance of James Brockway, Nevada qualified for its first state tournament in 2008. The Cubs have fielded a tournament-worthy team every year since, but until this season they were unable to get over the hump – losing twice in the regional finals, once in the semifinals and once in the opening round.
Last year’s Class 3A semifinal upset loss to Bondurant-Farrar spurred a whole new attitude for the program as the returning players were determined not to let that happen again. Led by seniors Megan Pringnitz, Emma Lodestein and Jessica Helton, the Cubs got stronger and stronger as the 2013 season went along.
Nevada ended the regular season on a 10-match winning streak to finish ranked fifth in 3A. The Cubs kept the hot play going all through regional competition, dominating all three matches.
The regional final fittingly paired Nevada against Bondurant-Farrar. This time the Bluejays – rated 13th in the final 3A poll – weren’t going to catch the Cubs off guard.
Nevada swept Bondurant-Farrar in impressive fashion to win its 13th-straight match and get back to state. At state, Nevada gave a fourth-ranked Union team filled with many state tournament veterans a good fight, but the Cubs came up short in four sets during the opening round to end the season with a 32-12 record.
"I thought this was a great year for the Cubs," Brockway said. "The team remained very focused on continuing to improve throughout the season. The main factor resided with the determination within individual players to better themselves. Challenges were issued to everyone, covering the full gambit of volleyball team play such as hitting efficiency, tougher serving and more defensive awareness to more subtle things like body language and energetic contributions from the bench."
The Cubs suffered eight of their 12 losses during the first half of the season. Most of those setbacks were to ranked teams, larger schools or a combination of both.
Nevada fell to Lewis Central and Ankeny Centennial at the Ames Invitational, and West Des Moines Valley (twice) and Cedar Rapids Kennedy at the Southeast Polk Invite. At the Fort Dodge Invitational, Nevada came up short against Ames, Ankeny Centennial and eventual 2A state runner-up Western Christian.
During the first half of the season Nevada was able to knock off 5A schools Mason City, Des Moines North and Fort Dodge, and 4A programs in Lewis Central and Pella. Lewis Central ended up ranked 11th in 4A.
Nevada also wrapped up the Heart of Iowa Conference championship in the first half of the year. The Cubs took on their two toughest challengers – Roland-Story and North Polk – in a three-day span in early September and swept both schools on the road to make an impressive statement.
The second half of the season saw Nevada really start to come together.
The Cubs went 4-1 at the Nevada Invitational – with their only loss coming to rated 3A power Iowa Falls-Alden. Nevada followed its home tournament with a 4-2 showing at the Waverly-Shell Rock Invite.
The Cubs lost to ranked 2A power Grundy Center and a top-five 4A team in Waverly-Shell Rock at Waverly and they also defeated Cedar Rapids Jefferson twice.
Nevada won its final two matches at Waverly to spark its big winning streak to close out the season. The following week, the Cubs wrapped up their second straight 9-0 HOIC championship run by sweeping Prairie City-Monroe, Saydel and Colfax-Mingo; then Nevada ended the regular season by winning the Winterset Invitational.
The Cubs pulled off their biggest victory of the regular season at Winterset when they knocked off then No. 4 and eventual 3A state qualifier Red Oak. Nevada also defeated Dallas Center-Grimes, Norwalk, Hampton-Dumont and Creston at Winterset.
In regional play Nevada played like a team on a mission. The Cubs blew past East Marshall and South Tama with ease in the first two rounds to set up their revenge match versus Bondurant-Farrar in the finals.
"This team continued to avoid distractions and focused on getting better as a team," Brockway said. "It really took hold mid-season and allowed us to close out the season playing our best volleyball of the year. The Red Oak and Bondurant-Farrar wins were especially sweet."
At state Nevada took on a Union team that was making its fourth-straight trip to Cedar Rapids. The Cubs took it right to the Knights, winning the opening set by a 25-21 score.
But Union’s tournament savvy showed the rest of the match as the Knights came back to defeat the Cubs in four sets.
"The trip to state and the extra time you get with the athletes during the season is always just so much fun," Brockway said. "The constant undercurrent of excitement, nervousness and anticipation always adds just a little more spark to the day."
For the season Nevada had a total of 1,090 kills and 458 errors in 109 sets. In addition to averaging 10 kills per set, the Cubs also turned in a strong .201 kill-efficiency rate as a team.
On defense the Cubs compiled 1,480 digs and 219 blocks. They averaged 13.58 digs and 2.01 blocks per set.
Nevada finished with a serve-efficiency rate of 89 percent on the season. The Cubs totaled 289 aces for an average of 2.65 per set.
Pringnitz and 6-0 sophomore middle blocker Kati Cassabaum were the dominant go-to players at the net for Nevada.
Pringnitz led Nevada in kills (301) and kill-efficiency (.255) at outside hitter. She was also a tremendous all-around player, contributing 253 digs and 18 blocks and serving at a 90-percent rate with 53 aces.
Cassabaum was right behind Pringnitz kills with 288 and she had a kill-efficiency rate of .234. Cassabaum was Nevada’s dominant force at the net defensively as she recorded a team-best 67 blocks.
Freshman Abby Stephenson emerged as a big weapon at outside hitter and Lodestein and junior Mara Rhodes gave Nevada a real spark at the net off the bench.
Stephenson finished with a team-high 279 digs and she also recorded 203 kills on a .185 efficiency rate. Stephenson also connected on 91-percent of her serves with 34 aces and she came up with 27 blocks and 19 assists.
Lodestein hammered down 116 kills on a .131 efficiency rate. She also was second on the team in blocks with 39 and a nice serving weapon in finishing with 49 aces.
Rhodes picked up 142 kills on a .157efficiency rate. She also chipped in 38 blocks and was second on the team in assists with 30.
Junior Michaela Matuska provided Nevada with one of the best setters in all of 3A.
Matuska ran Nevada’s quick-tempo attack flawlessly and she ended up with 859 assists – an average of 7.88 per set. Matuska also came up with 220 digs, 29 blocks and 24 kills and she led the team in serving accuracy by connecting on 94 percent of her serves with 42 aces.
Helton manned the libero spot and sophomore Erin Francis stepped up as another valuable asset in the back row for Nevada this season.
Helton had 243 digs and she also came up with 34 aces. Francis picked up 197 digs and she was a big weapon as a server in recording 51 aces.
Sophomore Megan Anderson also came along as a reliable player in the back row as the season progressed. Anderson recorded 53 digs in 55 sets and she connected on 97 of 104 serves (93 percent) with 16 aces.
Junior Peyton Dugger also helped out as a server as she went 43 of 48 with three aces. Dugger also had 25 digs in 17 sets and sophomore Caroline Wagner picked up 11 digs in 11 sets.
"The Cubs are truly so deep and talented," Brockway said. "We ended the year with lots of girls who are able to play at any level when given the opportunity."
Next season Pringnitz, Lodestein and Helton leave Nevada with some big shoes to fill.
"I was so proud of how our seniors all took on leadership roles on the floor to help get us to the state tournament," Brockway said. "Jessie became a back-court force – always pushing the tempo of our offense. Megan became a vocal, well-rounded leader – using her voice and serve-receive skills to push the team forward. Emma led by demonstrating how to push yourself in drills – displaying the daily work ethic a champion has."
The Cub volleyball program will also have to deal with the loss of Brockway, who resigned at the end of the season. But the Cub coach said Nevada has nothing to worry about as the Cubs will be plenty capable of making another run to state in 2014.
"The outlook for the Cubs is so high," Brockway said. "These players are so good at soaking in knowledge and applying it to their game as well as in life. They will take all the things we have learned together over the last nine years and add it to things they will learn next season. The sky is the limit."