CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Falls volleyball team waited a year for their shot at redemption.
During Friday’s Class 5A state championship match, the Tigers left no doubt.
Cedar Falls captured the school’s first volleyball championship in 19 state tournament appearances with a sweep of West Des Moines Valley, 25-21, 25-19, 25-16, finally flushing away the sour taste of last season’s straight-set finals loss to Ankeny Centennial.
“The drive this team had from the end of last season is beautiful,” said fourth-year starting setter Tayah Mahi, captain of the all-tournament team. “To pull this off as seniors and leave that legacy is just amazing. I feel so fulfilled. There’s just closure there, which is really nice.”
This championship run caps the stellar prep careers of Mahi, Taylor Lynch, Grace Burken and Claire Gerdes, who have contributed for four years at the varsity level and signed with NCAA Division I volleyball programs. Fellow seniors Cynthia Wolf, Abby Hendrickson and Majda Suljic have joined the varsity team along the way to comprise one of the more complete and talented classes in state history. They reached the state semifinals as sophomores and finished their last two seasons in the finals, ending their careers as winners.
“Our entire four years of work have finally paid off,” said Gerdes, who led her team against Valley with 10 kills. “It’s an incredible feeling. We’ve created such a bond.”
Cedar Falls finished the season 43-2, splitting a four-match series with Dike-New Hartford and winning its last 49 consecutive sets.
“Just laser-like focus,” Cedar Falls coach Matt Johnson said, describing his team’s championship drive. “It’s ridiculous how in tune they’ve been since last November.
“Then they got on this stage and played three really great matches.”
Indeed, last year’s championship loss motivated this intense group of competitors. They replayed the match during a sleepover prior to the state tournament, watching each of their 33 attack errors in disgust.
“Everyone was angry watching points, like why did we do that?” Mahi said. “I think it really drove us to push and win that state championship.”
This final was a night-and-day difference from the last one. Cedar Falls had six different attackers finish with at least five kills as part of a 46-kill total versus just 15 errors.
Middles Gerdes and Burken combined for 18 kills on 32 swings. Sophomore Akacia Brown capped her breakthrough season with nine kills. Valley managed just a pair of three-point runs as Cedar Falls dictated play throughout the match.
“You never feel too stressed out in any rotation because we’ve just got such depth,” Johnson said. “We were good today in system, good out of system and we just made really big plays when we needed to.”
Valley’s lead attacker, Madi Kubik, showcased some impressive attacks out of the back row, but was never able to take over this match. The University of Nebraska volleyball recruit, who finished with 31 kills during Thursday’s win over Centennial, took 42 swings and was held to 13 of her team’s 23 kills.
Cedar Falls’ libero Hendrickson backed up a strong block with 11 digs, and Mahi had nine digs to complement her 24 assists and five kills.
“We needed to defend her tight,” Mahi said of Kubik. “We talked about how we can’t let her rolls drop. She has a heavy swing so we’re not going to always get those, but I think it’s pretty awesome that we limited her to 13 kills.”
Lynch used to the word character to best describe this year’s Tigers.
“All these girls are so much fun, not only to play with, but just to be around,” Lynch said. “They’re all my best friends and I’m going to miss playing with them a lot.”
Cynthia Wolf (Cedar Falls), Olivia Curry (W.D.M. Valley), Devyn Robinson (Ankeny Centennial), Megan Renner (Linn-Mar), Taylor Lynch (Cedar Falls), Madi Kubik (W.D.M. Valley). Captain: Tayah Mahi (Cedar Falls).