Cubs click when it matters

Joe RandlemanStaff Writer

It was a perfect storm for Nevada at the state volleyball team Wednesday through Friday at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.

The Cubs played their best volleyball of the season at exactly the right time to earn the the first volleyball state championship in school history.

Nevada entered the season ranked No. 1 in Class 3A by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union after returning a lot of talent off last year’s state semifinal team. But the Cubs had their ups and downs during the season, and ended up dropping to No. 4 in the final IGHSAU rankings after losing nine matches.

“Coach (Will Baumann) said we were ranked No. 1, but what are they basing that on?” Nevada outside hitter Abby Stephenson said. “They were basing it on nothing because we hadn’t done anything this year yet. All we care about is being No. 1 at the end of the season.”

Part of the reason Nevada fell in the rankings during the season was due to its brutal schedule. The Cubs played several weekend tournaments against some of the top teams from 5A and 4A, including 5A state champion Ankeny Centennial, runner-up Bettendorf and semifinalist Cedar Falls, along with 4A state semifinalist Lewis Central on two occasions.

But another factor was inconsistency. The Cubs struggled with hitting errors at times during the season.

With Gillian Tupper replacing all-state performer Michaela Matuska at setter this season, it took some time for Nevada to gel. But as the season was winding down, Tupper began performing at a high level and her veteran teammates responded in a big way.

This led to Nevada displaying tremendous execution at state.

In three matches covering 10 sets against outstanding defensive competition from Columbus Catholic, Kuemper Catholic and West Liberty teams rated Nos. 9, 2 and 1 respectively in the final 3A poll, Nevada recorded 137 kills against just 47 errors in 408 attacks.

The Cubs were also outstanding serving the ball as they went 249 of 260 (96 percent) with 18 aces. Their serve receive was on the mark as well.

“I think it was a narrowing of the focus,” Baumann said. “I don’t think we had a super big focus for awhile there - we just wanted to play and win. When it came to the state championship, winning one game at a time, they were able to really lock into what we wanted to do as a team and how we wanted to perform as a team. As we saw the end goal start to come into line, it helped us a lot.”

A well-rounded attack played a big role in Nevada’s state tournament surge.

Middle hitter Kati Cassabaum - a UNI signee - received a lot of attention from opposing defenses at state. Cassabaum frequently saw double blocks, but that freed up her teammates and they stepped up big in Cedar Rapids.

“They want to key on Kati, which I’m fine with,” Baumann said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons and they showed up.”

Stephenson and fellow outside hitter Erin Francis both joined Cassabaum as an all-tournament selection after combining for 64 kills, 98 digs and 16 blocks between them during the tournament. Amaris Hornbuckle tacked on 19 kills and Abby Bremer chipped in 12 kills and 11 blocks.

The back row also did its job at a high level for Nevada. In addition to the great play of Stephenson and Francis in the back, Cub libero Chloe Davis put up 61 digs and Megan Anderson added 16.

Meanwhile, Tupper came through with 111 assists running the Cub attack. She also had 18 digs and nine kills in tournament play.

“It just seemed to click during state and we just went with it,” Stephenson said. “That’s an amazing feeling to finally have it come together when it means the most.”

It didn’t hurt to have tremendous poise in tough situations either.

Though the Cubs were dominant most of the week, losing only one set, there were times when their mettle was tested. They had to bounce back from an opening-set loss to Columbus Catholic in the quarterfinals, fend off Kuemper Catholic in the final set of the semifinal match by a 26-24 score and then outlast West Liberty in a thrilling 30-28 third set in the championship match.

“We don’t back down easily.” Stephenson said. “It was really good we could finish like that. It was awesome.”

The end result of the three days at state was a dream coming true for 16 high school girls.

“We go hard at everything and our goals are really big,” Stephenson said. “We are just so happy about this.”