CEDAR FALLS — Tayah Mahi’s first memories of competition on a volleyball court came tagging along with members of the University of Oklahoma team coached by her parents, Kalani and Chris.
“The girls loved me there,” Mahi said. “I would always play and mess around with them. That introduced me to the sport.
“What inspires me to play is the passion my parents have for it and I just want to make them proud.”
When Tayah’s dad, Kalani, landed a job on Bobbi Petersen’s staff as a setting coach for the University of Northern Iowa, the future collegiate setter couldn’t haven’t dreamed of finding a better volleyball home.
The UNI volleyball commit is now a high school senior closing in on 4,000 career assists. It’s the product of working within a successful Cedar Falls program that includes three classmates committed to NCAA Division I volleyball schools, and another committed to play basketball at UNI.
In total, Cedar Falls’ top five attackers are all averaging between 2 and 2.6 kills per set. Instead of feeding one or two hot hands, Mahi knows she has the luxury of reading the opposing defense and finding whoever has the clearest path to a kill.
“It’s such a blessing,” Mahi said. “Honestly, I think about it probably every time. I can go anywhere and know that girl can put the ball away. They all have such an aggressive mindset and they all want to win. It’s just nice to play with such competitive weapons.”
Cedar Falls coach Matt Johnson credits Mahi’s ability to spread the ball around and maximize the talent within her team.
“She’s got great hands and has developed the ability to set different tempo,” Johnson said. “She seems to have a very good understanding of where the ball needs to go and when. She’s in a situation where she’s got a lot of hitters and she can use match-ups and make some decisions herself where the ball goes. We put a lot on her to make some of those decisions on her own.”
With 3,965 career assists, Mahi is likely to become just the fourth Iowa high school setter to reach the 4,000 milestone in the past 10 years. It’s safe to assume, however, wins are the only numbers that she’s been tracking.
“I didn’t know that,” Mahi responded, when asked what the upcoming individual milestone would mean to her. “That would be really cool. I honestly thought I hadn’t even reached 2,000 yet.”
Mahi, along with classmates Taylor Lynch, Grace Burken and Claire Gerdes, have competed at the varsity level since their freshman year. It’s a core group that has shown growth from reaching the regional finals their first season, to qualifying for state the next, and then finishing runner-up after playing in the championship match a year ago.
“When we played together since we were freshmen, we hung out together,” Mahi said. “That made us a ton closer. One by one, everyone else started to join the team from our class. We did grow a lot closer. Volleyball is what made us best friends.”
Last weekend, the Tigers’ senior class crossed another impressive accomplishment off their list by adding to a Mississippi Valley Conference regular-season divisional title with an MVC tournament championship in the same season. Saturday’s championship run included wins over four of the top eight teams in the Class 4A and 5A rankings.
Working alongside so many driven teammates with aspirations of chasing down an elusive state title, Mahi enters her fourth postseason confident this group has what it takes to reach its ultimate goal.
“I just want to stay as focused as possible and keep pushing as hard as we can and keep playing like we can play,” Mahi said. “Sometimes it gets to postseason and everyone is kind of tired. But I think we’re a team that can come into postseason and take all of the experience we’ve got from the regular season and use it and push harder.”
Following in the footsteps of two parents who played volleyball at Graceland University, Mahi credits both as mentors in the sport. Her mom serves as her current club coach where Tayah supplemented her indoor skills with success in beach volleyball.
In addition to having her dad as a position coach at UNI, Mahi says she’s looking forward to joining a successful collegiate program head coach Petersen, assistant Kim Davis and director of operations Michelle Coulter have also helped build.
“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at home or not,” Mahi said. “But then I was like, ‘OK, I have such an amazing program here where the coaching staff is like family, so why wouldn’t I want to stay here?’ I’m really excited to be able to play for my dad again. I love to be coached by him. I love how intense he is and I love the feedback that he gives.”