CEDAR FALLS — Through an introduction to volleyball that consisted of bruises and some tough love from her older sister Kaz, Akacia Brown has both followed in the footsteps of one of Cedar Falls’ all-time greats and charted her own path on the court.
Before Kaz Brown became an all-SEC middle hitter at national power Kentucky, she was peppering shots at Akacia, seven years younger.
“I was a little kid and it made me better because she was already hitting way hard at me, so I was getting used to a higher level,” recalls Akacia, whose older brothers Kalund and Kalehl were also standout basketball players. “I’d remember sometimes we’d go outside and I’d start crying because it (the volleyball) would hit me and it would just hurt a lot.”
Frequently receiving valuable advice from Kaz prior to matches, Akacia has grown into a dynamic outside hitter capable of inflicting pain on her opponents. She worked her way into the lineup as a sophomore and was utilized as a front row weapon on last year’s star-studded Cedar Falls team that won the school’s first Class 5A state championship.
Following the graduation of a seven-player senior class that included four NCAA Division I volleyball players and a DI basketball player, Brown is a junior leading the next wave of hungry Tigers. They’ve already demonstrated there isn’t going to be a significant dropoff in talent.
No. 5 Cedar Falls swept No. 4 Linn-Mar twice last week in addition to recording sweeps of No. 14 Dowling, No. 11 Waukee, No. 3 Cedar Rapids Jefferson and No. 1 Ankeny Centennial in Saturday’s Centennial Invitational.
“We weren’t intimidated by anything,” said Brown, who is averaging a team-high 4.33 kills per set to go with set averages of 2.93 digs, 0.53 blocks and 0.4 aces as a full rotation weapon. “The sixth match of the day, playing the number one team in the state, we were all pretty tired, but we didn’t let that stop us and we didn’t let anything get in the way. We just kept going.”
That drive to be the best is a quality Cedar Falls coach Matt Johnson says Brown has exuded from day one. The eventual go-to hitter and leader of this year’s Tigers was a late bloomer on the volleyball court.
“Going into seventh grade when I came here, you would not have looked at that girl and said, ‘That’s a future volleyball player,’” Johnson recalled. “She had the right mentality, she had the right attitude, but she was not very skilled. Where she’s gone from there to now is a tribute to how hard she works.”
Brown, who started out playing the middle hitter position in which her older sister excelled, decided to mold herself into a strong passer who never had to leave the court. She grew to 6-feet tall and increased her vertical and strength after investing time in training programs such as XL Sports Acceleration in Cedar Falls.
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“The reason I wanted to play outside and play all the way around was because when I played middle a big thing for me is getting excited,” said Brown, who also competes on the Iowa Rockets club team. “When I’d come out, I’d feel like my team wouldn’t get as excited. I wanted to make sure I could be in the whole time, keeping my team cheered up.”
Teammates certainly gravitate toward Brown’s lighthearted personality on lengthy road trips.
“She’s a fun kid to be around,” Johnson noted. “She’s just got a bizarre, goofy personality, and at the same time she can flip a switch. When it’s time to go, she’s ready to go.
“It’s odd to see that mix of making sure everybody is having fun to just ultra competitive, but she can find that balance and manage it pretty well.”
During the van ride home after last year’s state championship sweep over West Des Moines Valley, Brown was the first girl in the vehicle to talk about repeating.
“It was fun to hear her say that because some of the other sophomores and juniors are maybe sitting there going, ‘Wow, we’re losing our whole team, what’s it going to be like?’” Johnson said. “For her to step out and say our goal is to compete and we expect to keep competing at the state level is cool.”
Johnson has noticed Brown will often elevate her play against tougher competition. She completed extra practice reps to handle a heavier workload this season.
“She’s got a pretty good understanding of what to do with the ball and when,” Johnson said. “She’s not just a pretty ball hitter. When we’re out of system and need a big swing from an awkward angle, she’s a person willing to step up and take that swing.”
The girl who first embraced the challenges her sister provided has already drawn interest from multiple NCAA Division I programs. She still wants to be tested.
“For me, I think my biggest thing is I want to be in a good conference,” Brown said. “You can only become better and be one of the best players by playing against other best players.”