Cubs prove doubters wrong in 2016

Joe Randleman, Staff Writer
Senior Skye Borton played a big role in the Nevada volleyball team's HOIC championship and state tournament berth this season with her play at right-side hitter.

After reaching the promised land last season, the Nevada volleyball program came out with something to prove in 2016.

The Cubs entered the season having to replace several key players off last year’s Class 3A state championship squad, including all-state performers Kati Cassabaum and Erin Francis. Nevada also had to deal with its second coaching change in three years, a tough Heart of Iowa Conference featuring three other high-quality programs and a move up from 3A to 4A to boot.

All the challenging obstacles left many outsiders feeling Nevada was in for a down year this fall. But that was certainly not the case.

Nevada proved it is an elite program by winning its fifth undefeated HOIC title in a row and returning to state for the fourth-consecutive season.

“Last year we graduated 10 seniors, so this year we had none of those kids and two others from (former head coach Will) Baumann’s practice court of 18 girls didn’t come back,” first-year Nevada head volleyball coach Lori Stephenson said. “So we started the season with three kids who had a lot of varsity experience and three others who had varsity practice experience. Those six girls provided such great leadership and had such high expectations in practice and in games that the new kids just filled in the gaps and learned their roles well. Together they created a team that had some great accomplishments.”

The Cubs began the season by splitting four matches at the Ankeny Centennial Invitational. Nevada beat Mason City and Carroll and came up short against Ankeny Centennial and Dowling Catholic.

On Sept. 1, Nevada went 4-1 at the Tiger Invitational in Adel. The Cubs took down Adel-Desoto-Minburn, Knoxville, Norwalk and Perry and lost to 2A power Woodward-Granger.

Conference play began Sept. 6 with a sweep over Roland-Story in Story City. Nevada followed that with another big weekend tournament — going 4-2 at the Southeast Polk Invitational on Sept. 10.

The Cubs downed Ottumwa, Waukee, Indianola and Des Moines Lincoln at Southeast Polk. Both of their losses came against HOIC rival North Polk.

Conference competition resumed with an impressive four-set victory for Nevada over 2A power South Hamilton at home. The Cubs then swept Collins-Maxwell-Baxter and picked up their second big win in a week with a four-set triumph over a Gilbert team then ranked in the top 10.

Nevada went on to win the Nevada Invitational Sept. 24 with a 4-1 record. The Cubs’ only loss of the tournament came against Ballard, and their victories were over West Marshall, Carlisle, Des Moines Lincoln and Norwalk.

On Sept. 27 the Cubs swept Prairie City-Monroe in HOIC play. Four days later, they split six matches at the Waverly-Shell Rock Invitational.

Nevada defeated Crestwood twice and Solon once at Waverly. The Cubs suffered two losses to Beckman Catholic and one setback versus Solon.

HOIC competition for Nevada concluded with victories over Greene County and North Polk on Oct. 4 and 6 respectively. The Cubs swept Greene County and then clinched the HOIC title by avenging the earlier losses to a North Polk squad that, entering the match, hadn’t lost in conference play.

The regular season came to a close Oct. 8 at the Bettendorf Invitational. Nevada rested some players at the tournament and went 2-4 with wins over Rock Island (Ill.) and Muscatine and losses to Clinton, Iowa City High, Ankeny and Bettendorf.

After a long layoff that included a regional quarterfinal-round bye, Nevada began its quest for back-to-back state titles in the 4A regional semifinals versus Bondurant-Farrar Oct. 25. Bondurant-Farrar pushed Nevada to the limit, but the Cubs prevailed in an exciting five-set match to march on to the regional finals.

Nevada did suffer a big blow against Bondurant-Farrar when senior outside hitter Chloe Davis suffered a season-ending injury. But the Cubs easily overcame the obstacle in the regional finals, sweeping Dallas Center-Grimes to return to state.

“In regional play, it was really very gratifying to put together a new lineup for the regional finals and beat DCG in three games,” Stephenson said. “After Bondurant and the loss of Chloe, I don’t think anyone would have predicted a 3-0 handling of DCG.”

At state Nevada ran into No. 1 Pella in the 4A quarterfinals. The Cubs played tough, but were swept in three sets by the eventual 4A runners-up to end the season.

Nevada finished the season at 29-14 overall and 8-0 in the HOIC.

“Going to the state tournament probably is the biggest highlight, but beating South Hamilton, Gilbert and North Polk to take the conference title is really something special as well,” Stephenson said. “I think all of those teams thought they had a legitimate chance at the title, and we just were tenacious enough to prevent that from happening.”

The lofty achievements made her first season as coach very rewarding for Stephenson.

“(It was) amazing in that there were so many rewards in working with a great group of kids and with so many great adults — my assistant coaches, the athletic department, the custodial staff, the bus drivers, etc,” Stephenson said. “It was (also) amazing in that we had so many successes: we won a conference title and extended Nevada’s streak to five in a row and we made it to the state tournament for the fourth year in a row. We were the smallest in 4A, so to keep our state rankings high all season and to make it through regionals just felt like such a great thing.”

For the season, Nevada accumulated 1,162 kills in 3,293 attacks with 463 errors for a strong team kill-efficiency rate of .212. The Cubs averaged 10.76 kills per set on the season.

Nevada served at a 93.4-percent rate with 221 aces — an average of 2.05 aces per set. The Cubs averaged 15.70 digs, 10.19 assists and 1.96 blocks per set.

Seniors Abby Stephenson and Gillian Tupper were the leaders for Nevada all season.

Abby Stephenson — Lori’s daughter — entered the season a two-time all-state performer. In 2016, the versatile outside hitter recorded 432 kills at 4.11 per set with a .297 kill-efficiency rate and she produced 458 digs at 4.36 per set.

Abby Stephenson ended up seventh in all of 4A in both total kills and digs. She also served at a 97.6-percent rate with 39 aces and came up with 33 blocks.

Tupper joined Abby Stephenson as a first-team all-HOIC performer. She stepped up her game this season to be one of the elite setters in 4A.

For the season Tupper handed out 974 assists at 9.02 assists per set. She ranked second in 4A for total assists and fourth in assists per set.

Like Abby Stephenson, Tupper was also fantastic as an all-around performer. She registered 178 digs, 93 kills, 37 aces and 21 blocks.

Davis was a second-team all-HOIC performer at a whole new position after playing the libero, with some time at setter, last year. This season at outside hitter, Davis racked up 184 kills with a .119 kill-efficiency rate and she also had 248 digs and was an outstanding server with a team-high 49 aces and a 96.2-percent accuracy rate.

Right-side hitter Skye Borton and libero Kelsey Wiederien were the two other senior starters to step into full-time varsity roles this season.

Borton was yet another versatile performer for the Cubs. She delivered 178 digs, 120 kills, 27 blocks and 27 aces.

Wiederien recorded 424 digs at 3.96 digs per set. She also served at a 97.8-percent clip with 31 aces.

Junior Hattie Rhodes and freshman Kacie Rewerts filled in admirably at middle hitter for Nevada.

Rhodes recorded 152 kills and a team-high 63 blocks. She also served at a 95.7-percent rate with 35 aces and had 63 digs.

Rewerts produced 160 kills and 59 blocks on the season.

Sophomore Amanda Fortmann was a valuable contributor in the back row. Fortmann tallied 101 digs and five aces on the season.

Freshman Morgan Tupper fought back from an injury to fill in for Davis down the stretch. She totaled 27 digs, three kills and one ace on the season.

Madison Thompson had 16 kills and Kelby Rewerts ended up with two for Nevada.

Nevada will have a tough chore replacing Abby Stephenson, Gillian Tupper, Davis, Borton and Wiederien next season.

“I coached volleyball in the early 90s, then quit when my son, Patrick, was born in 1995,” Lori Stephenson said. “My return to volleyball was with these seniors when they were in seventh grade. I coached their school season, then spent two years with them on the road at AAU tournaments. To be able to be a part of their last season of volleyball in Nevada was really a tremendous opportunity for me. What a great group of talented, hard-working kids.”

But with Rhodes and Kacie Rewerts back at the net to lead the way, Nevada doesn’t plan on fading anytime soon.

“At the state track meet I overheard a conversation where someone from another town heard someone was from Nevada (and) they said ‘wow, Nevada has a really good volleyball team,’” Lori Stephenson said. “That’s what I want to hear for years to come. I will always have the goal of winning conference and going to the state tournament. How we get there is going to change each year, but it’s the focus of every moment I’m in the gym with the middle schoolers in the winter and every moment of summer and off-season work with the high schoolers.”