WATERLOO -- If you want to build a strong volleyball program, there's no better place than Northeast Iowa.
From club teams that excel on a national level to state championship high school programs and highly successful four-year collegiate programs, this corner of the state sets the standard for volleyball excellence.
Make room for Hawkeye Community College.
"Northeast Iowa has great volleyball," notes Maggie Driscol, a freshman setter who played at Union Community High School. "It's awesome that Hawkeye is starting up a program because of all the great volleyball we have in this area."
On Aug. 22, the RedTails host John Wood Community College of Quincy, Ill., in the program's first-ever match. It's an HCC team built entirely with former Iowa high school standouts, many of whom are familiar to Northeast Iowa volleyball fans.
"I can't think of a better hub to recruit from," says RedTails head coach Scott Weston, whose first roster consists of 14 freshmen and three sophomores from around the state. Of those, a dozen played high school volleyball within 20 miles of the HCC campus.
"We were very lucky picking up some of the high-caliber players that we did. I don't think that freshman status is going to matter. They played high levels of club, high-level state ball and things like that so they're going to be ready for it."
It's an exciting time for the RedTails. For some, it's a chance to return to competitive volleyball -- in some cases with old teammates.
"I wasn't planning to play sports after high school," Driscol explains. "I was just going to get my education. Then I heard volleyball was starting up this year ... Scott reached out to me and I thought it would be a great opportunity to play one last time, especially with Megan, since we've played together since like fourth grade."
That would be Megan Hudson, another former Union standout who also excels in track and field at HCC.
"Volleyball is always fun and it's great to get out here and be able to do another competitive sport for another year," says the RedTails' outside hitter.
At the same time, being part of a new program is about more than serving, passing, blocking and hitting. First impressions are important.
"Everybody's always pretty skeptical about a first-year program," Hudson explains. "It's like, 'Oh, they won't be very good their first year.' But we were pretty successful in track where we placed in the top 20 in every single event we made it to nationals indoors, and outdoors we got top eight, which would be All-American.
"Setting the standard the first year is super important because it brings everybody in and it's like, 'They're not just a first-year program. They're actually something to build off of."
"I think this first year we want to come out with a bang," adds Driscol. "We want that winning record. We want to make a statement in the conference and I think top half of the conference is a great goal that we can accomplish. And obviously, nationals would be an awesome goal."
In the short term, the RedTails are getting to know each other, identify their new leaders and find the right combinations for success on the floor.
"Sometimes, you would think there might be some (rivalries) there from their time in club and high school, but this group has meshed really well and I think they have because they know each other," says Weston. "I think some of them also realize that they had to play against this person before, now it will be nice to play with this person."
Driscol says the RedTails have already come a long way.
"I think things are coming together well," she states. "We kind of met each other in the winter and spring, and I think everyone finally meeting each other on the court has been a good time. We're starting to mesh and learn each other's strategies and habits and everything like that.
"We're definitely growing in the right direction."
On the practice floor, Weston sees all the elements of a successful volleyball team. He's looking forward to a bright future for HCC volleyball.
"We're in a great position," he says. "We've got a great venue here for volleyball. We've got housing across the street so it's a little easier for our students to come over and se a game.
"The parents have been extremely excited and some community members have reached out to me who have kids playing at different schools and are excited to come watch a game.
"We've developed a pretty good fan base and we haven't even played a game yet. It's going to be exciting on the 22nd when we pack this gym."