Redhawks taking first step for future
TRAER — The North Tama volleyball program was mired in mediocrity, hovering around .500 for a decade with nothing more than few fond memories to show for it.
The shake-up started with a 5-foot-5 former libero from Vinton, who demanded nothing less than success the minute she stepped into the Redhawks Nest.
So when North Tama’s volleyball team swept aside Coon Rapids-Bayard in the Class 1A Region 4 finals to clinch the squad’s first state tournament berth, it was anything but earth-shattering.
Channing Halstead has expected it from day one. Her only regret is that it’s taken this long for the Redhawks to reach volleyball prominence.
The eighth-ranked North Tama volleyball program will make its U.S. Cellular Center debut tonight as the seventh seed in the 1A bracket, facing a second-ranked Springville squad that was last year’s runner-up and has been to Cedar Rapids now four of the last five seasons.
It’s a tall order for the youthful Redhawks, who have never experienced anything like this at the varsity level. But Halstead, who played both libero and setter at Marshalltown Community College and was a second-team all-conference selection at Wartburg College, has been less-than-patient in waiting for North Tama to reach new heights.
Tonight, the gamey Redhawks (29-7) and the savvy Orioles (38-2) square off at 8 p.m. on Court 2 in the match Halstead had envisioned since taking the job in Traer.
“The first thing I said to them in practice this year was ‘it’s not OK to lose,'” said Halstead, a Vinton-Shellsburg graduate. “I’m trying to take a different approach to it, and within that same conversation I say ‘I’m going to take you out of your comfort zone. It’s not my job to make you like me necessarily.’
“I’m very honest with them about anything like that. I try not to blindside them, I’m honest when I communicate with them.”
The straightforward approach has paid off in Halstead’s fourth season as the Redhawks’ head coach. She’s been a band instructor at the school for seven years and involved with volleyball at various levels before becoming the head coach in 2014.
The girls who played for her before varsity knew what to expect. They knew what Halstead wanted out of them, and the destination has finally verified the journey.
“I think it’s so amazing because knowing that my name with this team is going into the history books as the first team to go to state volleyball,” said North Tama senior middle hitter Lydia Schafer. “Knowing I can look back on this knowing we’re the first is awesome.”
Schafer is one of two seniors on the Redhawk roster, joined by Andrea Ubben in that distinction. Both were on the front line at the moment North Tama notched its regional final victory, with Schafer’s successful kill accounting for the last point.
When it was time to present the first state volleyball qualifier banner North Tama will hang on its gymnasium walls, Schafer was honored to accept it on behalf of her team.
“It’s crazy, I do not think I will really comprehend it until we are in the U.S. Cellular Center, and even then I might not really understand it because it’s never even occurred to me that we could be here,” said Schafer. “I think the banner helped me make it more real because holding it was one of the best feelings in my life. It’s definitely surreal.”
North Tama’s state tournament debut will be a daunting one. Springville’s senior-heavy lineup features two NCAA Division II basketball recruits in Mikayla Nachazel and Rylee Menster, and a future Kirkwood Community College volleyball player in Sami Johnson.
The Orioles lost to Hudson in last year’s 1A state volleyball semifinals, but they’ve claimed the last two 1A state basketball titles and are poised to make it a threepeat. All that hoopla is lost on the Redhawks, who are eager to make a name for themselves in their first trip to Cedar Rapids.
“North Tama volleyball hasn’t been anything super-spectacular, there really hasn’t been a defining moment,” said Halstead. “We do not want to go down there and be one-and-down. We want to go down there and get as much experience as we can.”
With only two seniors on the roster, the Redhawks have their sights set on more than this maiden voyage. But there’s enough belief in this current lineup that surprising Springville is possible.
“They’re No. 2 in the state and they’ll be a tough team, but if we play hard maybe something will happen,” said sophomore libero Takoa Kopriva, who broke her own school record with 457 digs this season. “I think we just set a goal for winning however many games and then we did it, and then going out and playing tough teams helped us even if we lost to them because we learned from our mistakes.”
North Tama’s rise to regional prominence started this fall with an 11-0 start that included wins over Montezuma and Dunkerton, both of whom appeared in the final 1A rankings. The Redhawks lost to top-ranked Janesville in three sets, but a late lead in one of the games was a reluctant moral victory for the team to admire after the fact.
Of North Tama’s seven match losses this season, five of them were to ranked opponents, including two to 5A No. 8 Pleasant Valley at the Waterloo West Tournament. Three more came to fellow Iowa Star Conference foes Janesville (twice) and Tripoli, and an improbable comeback from a two-set deficit against No. 11 Montezuma in a stunning regional semifinal victory in Traer turned the Redhawks from a tremor into an all-out earthquake.
“It’s good for us to get a beating once in a while, and it’s also good when we play teams like CAL because that’s just a confidence-booster for us,” said sophomore right-side hitter Katie Kopriva, who ranks third in 1A with a school-record 452 kills. “Once we got that first goal of 11-0, we kept setting other goals for the season and achieving them. After we got that 11-0 [start], we said let’s try and get to the U.S. Cellular Center, and since then we’ve been telling each other we can get there.”
The closest the Redhawks had ever been to state before was in 2009, when a Molly Clubb-coached North Tama team fell in the 1A regional semifinals to — yep, you guessed it — Springville. While it didn’t berth a trip to Cedar Rapids, that team helped inspire a few future Redhawks along the way. Alex Oletski, a senior on that team, is Katie’s half-sister.
Other successful Redhawk girls’ programs of the past, like North Tama’s state tournament basketball squad of 2012, were placed atop the pedestal by members of this year’s volleyball contingent. Kailey Kladivo, Allison Zobel, Shannon Stuart, Shayla Kopriva and Josie Youel, among others, were mentioned by a number of these North Tama volleyball players.
“They definitely were huge role models and I always looked up to them,” said sophomore defensive specialist Katelyn Kucera. “It’s crazy and it feels really cool to be on this team and represent North Tama.
“I came to watch their games when I was younger and thought it was really cool and wanted to be like them. Now that we’re going to state, maybe the younger kids will think they can do this too, so it’s cool as a team being a role model. It’s a great feeling.”
Kucera is a part of a sophomore class that has tasted triumph at every level so far, save for a freshman season that finished 16-12 after a first-round regional loss to Gladbrook-Reinbeck. The Kopriva cousins Takoa and Katie, Kucera, setter Isabel Sierra, and middle hitter Carlie Gorder make up the core group for a North Tama team that hopes raise the bar now that it’s been set with a trip to state.
“My sophomore class is used to winning,” said Halstead. “They never lost a tournament all through sixth grade, they never lost an AAU tournament all seventh grade, but they did lose one in eighth grade when Isabel jammed her finger at a tournament. They are used to winning, and bringing that mentality makes a difference too because they’re not OK with losing.
“To be honest, I’m glad that I’m finally to the point where I can start worrying about how to beat Springville,” Halstead continued. “The other day when it was Katie’s birthday, when they were in fifth grade I took four of them to state volleyball to watch all day and it was the same week as Katie’s birthday then and they sent me a Snapchat with a picture of them with the court in the background that said ‘we will be back here in five years’ and they are.
“I still can’t believe we made it to state volleyball. I think when we step on the court, that’s when it will become real. I’ve seen my mom do it, but it hasn’t fully hit me yet. I think it sets the precedent for the future of the program, and hopefully gets the community on track with what I’m trying to do. I’ve gotten some push-back but hopefully now people understand what I’m trying to do and I really am here for the success of the girls. For a community that’s really not that familiar with volleyball yet, I think it’s huge for the future of the program.”
Schafer, who has been coached by Halstead every step of the way, says her coach is the one who’s going to get it done, like it or not.
“She tells it like it is, I think that’s the best way to describe it because if you are doing it wrong, she will tell you and she might not be kind about it,” Schafer said, “but that’s definitely what we need. Sometimes she’ll try different approaches if we need a nice coach that day she can do that, and there are days we definitely need more of a tough coach and she definitely fills that role too.
“At the beginning of the season our coach told us we can do it and I think that was such a big part of it because she kept repeating it. At the beginning of my career, [state] was not even in my wildest dreams.”
Wednesday, Nov. 8
Janesville (34-7) vs. East Mills (24-8), 6 p.m.
Starmont (30-5) vs. Holy Trinity Catholic (37-5), 8 p.m.
Gehlen Catholic (27-5) vs. Tripoli (25-13), 6 p.m.
Springville (38-2) vs. North Tama (29-7), 8 p.m.