Cubs reach ultimate goal in 2015

Story and photos by Joe Randleman
Cubs reach ultimate goal in 2015

Years of hard work and dedication combined with great talent to help the Nevada volleyball team realize a dream in 2015 as the Cubs won the first state championship in school history.

Nevada has gone from obscurity to a state power over the past decade, thanks to the tremendous coaching of former head coach James Brockway. In 2014, Will Baumann - a five-time state champion at Tripoli - took over a program that made it to the first round of the state tournament in 2013.

Last season Baumann guided Nevada to the state semifinals for the second time - the other being Nevada’s first trip to state in 2008. With the bulk of that team coming back, the Cubs had their sights set on the state championship.

The Cubs began the season ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, but they dropped back to No. 4 by the end of the season. But Nevada was saving its best for last.

At the state tournament Nevada dropped the first set of its opening match with Columbus Catholic, then never lost again. The Cubs straight up dominated the best competition in 3A to claim the ultimate achievement and accomplish a goal nearly 10 years in the making.

“Watching the genuine celebration and emotion of the initial championship celebration is something that will stick with me,” Baumann said.

Nevada went 33-9 in 2015 and won its third-consecutive unbeaten Heart of Iowa Conference championship with an 8-0 record.

Despite a plethora of skill and experience, it wasn’t always easy for Nevada throughout the season. The Cubs had to adjust to the loss of all-state setter Michaela Matuska off last year’s team, and they also faced a loaded schedule that included many 5A and 4A powers.

The season began with Nevada going 3-2 at the Ames Invitational. The Cubs defeated 4A powers Lewis Central and Carroll, along with 5A school Mason City, and lost to eventual 5A state champion Ankeny Centennial and 5A state qualifier Cedar Falls.

Nevada swept Greene County in its HOIC opener then went 3-2 at the Southeast Polk Invitational, where the Cubs defeated a Pella team that finished No. 10 in 4A and two 5A schools in Waukee and Des Moines Lincoln. However, they lost to top-10 5A power West Des Moines Valley and another 5A school in Southeast Polk.

On Sept. 15 Nevada swept Collins-Maxwell-Baxter in HOIC play, then followed that up with a convincing sweep of North Polk in conference play. The Cubs went 3-1 at the Fort Dodge Invitational - knocking off Fort Dodge, Ames and Osage and losing to Lewis Central.

The Cubs swept South Hamilton in HOIC play on Sept. 22, then won the Nevada Invitational with a perfect 5-0 record. At the Nevada Invite, Nevada knocked off West Marshall, Carlisle, Iowa Falls-Alden, Newton and Dallas Center-Grimes.

Nevada resumed conference play Sept. 29 with a four-set victory over a rising Gilbert team on senior night in Nevada. The Cubs followed up the Gilbert win by going 3-2 at the Waverly-Shell Rock Invitational.

At the Waverly-Shell Rock tournament Nevada defeated Cedar Rapids Jefferson, Mason City and Union, and they lost twice to Grundy Center.

The Cubs whipped Prairie City-Monroe in HOIC play, then went 2-2 at the Bettendorf Invitational. At Bettendorf Nevada defeated Clinton and Muscatine and lost Iowa City High and a Bettendorf team that finished runner-up in 5A.

Nevada closed out the regular season by sweeping HOIC matches with Roland-Story and Saydel.

“Our biggest challenge as a team was performing consistently at a high level,” Baumann said. “Each player matured and got better over the course of the season - each in their own time. Our tough season schedule prepared us for what we saw on the tournament trail. By November, with the added pressure of each game and the maturation of our team, we were able to steady our play.”

The Cubs opened 3A regional play by sweeping West Marshall. They then were given a good fight by a 26-win North Polk squad before winning in four sets.

In the regional finals Nevada dominated an overmatched PCM squad to earn a trip to state for the third year in a row.

At state Nevada started off a little shaky, dropping its first set to Columbus Catholic by a 25-22 score. But the Cubs rebounded to win the next three by 25-17, 25-20 and 25-16 scores to make it back to the semifinals.

In the semifinals Nevada faced a Kuemper Catholic team rated No.2 in 3A. Nevada turned in an outstanding effort to sweep the Knights by scores of 25-20, 25-15 and 26-24.

That put Nevada in the finals for the first time to face No. 1 West Liberty. West Liberty had revenge on its mind since Nevada had defeated them in the first round of the 2014 state tournament.

But that didn’t matter. The Cubs played at their peak level for the second match in a row, sweeping the Comets by scores of 25-21, 25-14 and 30-28 to claim the state championship.

“The season was a roller coaster, ultimately ending on a tremendous high,” Baumann said. “Only one team in each class gets to finish their season with a win and we did that. It was a great way for our seniors to go out.”

Baumann said having a large group of battle-tested athletes made everything possible for Nevada. In addition to the volleyball success over the past two seasons, the Cub girls have also been to the last two 1A state championship games in girls’ soccer and they won the 3A state title in girls’ basketball last year.

“Experience certainly plays a role,” Baumann said. “Not just volleyball experience, but high-level athletic experience. Many of our players are multi-sport players, accustomed to winning and performing in big situations. Their previous experience in other realms of high school sports helped our team tremendously.”

For the season Nevada totaled 1,178 kills and 449 errors in 3,243 attacks. The Cubs had a kill-efficiency rate of .225 and averaged 10.52 kills per set.

On defense Nevada totaled 1,724 digs and 244 blocks. The Cubs averaged 15.4 digs and 2.18 blocks per set.

Nevada served the ball at a .914-percent clip during the season. The Cubs totaled 297 aces and averaged 2.65 per set.

The all-state trio of Kati Cassabaum, Abby Stephenson and Erin Francis led Nevada individually.

Cassabaum, a two-time first-team all-state pick in 3A, led Nevada with 323 kills and 96 blocks at middle hitter. Cassabaum had a .320 kill-efficiency with 2.88 kills and 0.86 blocks per set and she also totaled 55 digs.

Stephenson joined Cassabaum as a first-team all-state selection this season. The versatile outside hitter had 292 kills, 432 digs, 35 blocks, 20 assists and 40 aces.

Stephenson averaged 3.86 digs and 2.61 kills per set and she had a kill-efficiency rate of .207. She went 334 of 355 serving for a .941-percent success rate.

Francis gave Nevada size at the net and she was also versatile enough to be an effective weapon in the back row.

Francis recorded 254 kills, 226 digs, 52 aces and 37 blocks on the season. She tallied a .201 kill-efficiency rate and averaged 2.27 kills, 2.02 digs, 0.46 aces and 0.33 blocks per set.

Senior outside hitter Amaris Hornbuckle and senior middle hitter Abby Bremer also stepped up at the net for Nevada this season.

Hornbuckle compiled 135 kills, 74 digs, 13 blocks and a team high 62 aces on the season. She had a .220 kill-efficiency rate, served at a .932-percent clip and averaged 1.31 kills per set.

Bremer racked up 110 kills, 62 digs, 43 blocks and 23 aces. She had a .193 kill-efficiency rate with 1.16 kills and .45 blocks per set.

Junior Chloe Davis anchored Nevada in the back row from her libero spot.

Davis was second on the team with 331 digs and 2.98 digs per set and she served at a .922-percent clip with 47 aces. Davis also spent some time at setter in the middle of the season, totaling 473 assists and averaging 4.26 per set.

Megan Anderson contributed 124 digs and 1.28 digs per set in the back row during her senior year. Fellow senior Caroline Wagner picked up 209 digs - averaging 2.65 per set - and she also went 158 of 184 serving with 27 aces.

Kaylee Kruschwitz chipped in 39 digs in the back row - averaging 1.22 per set. Alli Fey had 17 kills and six aces at right-side hitter before her season was cut short with an injury.

Junior Gillian Tupper filled in the void left at setter for Nevada most of the season. Her play late in the year was a big part of Nevada’s phenomenal finish.

For the season Tupper handed out 548 assists with an average of 7.21 per set. She also went 170 of 189 serving with 18 aces and totaled 139 digs and 31 kills.

It will be tough for Nevada to replace the awesome presence of Cassabaum in the middle along with the great play of Francis, Hornbuckle and Bremer at the net, plus Anderson and Wagner in the back row next season. But Stephenson, Davis and Tupper give the team a solid core to build around as the Cubs will attempt to make it back to state for the fourth year in a row and defend its crown.

“We will miss several seniors; however, we will retain many talented and experienced juniors and underclassmen,” Baumann said. “Our defense will be top-notch and other pieces are there waiting to be put into place.”