CEDAR FALLS — The Cedar Falls High volleyball team certainly knows what the sting of defeat feels like.
After rolling through the 2018 season like a steamroller plowing over cardboard boxes and looking to cap oa perfect 47-0 season, the Tigers were defeated by Ankeny Centennial in the Class 5A state finals.
It was Cedar Falls’ third consecutive trip to the finals (the Tigers won in 2017), and head coach Matt Johnson hopes some of his eight seniors remember how that 2017 team responded after losing in the finals in 2016.
“The one thing I will say is three years ago, when we were runner-up that kind of propelled us to the championship the next year, because they weren’t real happy with how they played in that final,” Johnson said. “They came back the next year and were a little more aggressive.”
The Tigers return two Division I recruits — Akacia Brown, who is headed to Mississippi State, and 6-foot-5 Alayna Yates, a Dayton University commit. Also back are two other all-state players, setter Emerson Green and defensive specialist Kirsten Graves. That is probably enough for Cedar Falls to open as the top-ranked team in Class 5A in the IGHSAU preseason rankings.
“That loss does bother us a lot, but we have learned from it,” Graves said.
After going back and watching the final weeks later, Johnson said his perspective changed. He doesn’t think his team played poorly in the final.
“Centennial played one of their best matches and there were some things we wanted to force them to do and they did them,” Johnson recalled.
Moving forward, the Tigers must replace Navy-bound Dara Hulstein, as well as Emily Clapp, Ashley Schildroth and McKenna Gleason.
Johnson said he expects players such as Jada Golden-Smith, Teria Campbell and Lexie Godfrey to step into larger roles.
“Those are kids that have gotten to develop on the junior varsity team and they are seniors now just like those other four and have a chance to step up on the court and play really well,” Johnson said.
Green says there are plenty of younger players challenging veteran players for playing time.
“In practice it feels like both sides are pretty equal, which helps us a lot in staying competitive,” Green said.
Seven letterwinners, including five players who started, are back for long-time volleyball coach Kerry Merrfield, who takes over this year after assisting Hanna Nuss the past few seasons.
Among the key returners are sophomore Faith Freshwater (94 kills), Megan Knudtson, Ali Vesely and setters Emily Surma (621 assists) and Madison Funk.
The Sailors did lose a couple of key pieces in Kate Shannon (now with the Iowa State volleyball team) and Avery Kroll, who transferred to West.
“We are more experienced,” Merrifield said. “Last year, it seemed like we tried a million different lineups, three different setters, and I think we will have a more steady lineup, one the girls can get more comfortable in and know their roles.
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“We are going to be small, but we are versatile. Seems like we have five middles, but all of them could play anywhere on the front line. And, we have some dynamos on the back line.”
After trying to play catch-up in 2018, second-year Trojan coach Corey Kennis says his team is much farther along as the 2019 season arrives.
“We have a lot of stuff going on this year,” Kennis said. “Last year, we played 30 matches, and this year we’ve already played 25 preseason matches and we went to three camps — Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Iowa Central.
“I don’t think there is anything out of the possibility this year. I realistically think we can triple our wins from last year.”
East returns six players who played significantly in 2018, and added setter Grace Frost, a transfer from Cedar Falls.
Sydney Magnuson and Kenidi Adams led the Trojans with 95 and 92 kills a year ago, while setter Carley Spooner and libero Jenna O’Donnell were second-team All-Metro picks.
Ashley Berinobis takes over the Wahawk program this season and returns two starters, plus Columbus transfer Avery Kroll, a first-team All-Metro selection last year.
Kroll registered 383 kills, while hitting at a .255 clip in the tough North Iowa Cedar League.
Senior Lauren Conrey and junior Gabby Moore are also back. Conrey was second for the Wahawks with 177 kills on a .170 attack percentage, while Moore had 61 kills and tied for the team lead with 35 blocks.
Berinobis said West’s strengths heading into the season are a good group of hitters and blockers, while the team needs to improve its confidence.
Five returning veterans and a couple of exciting freshman have Regents head coach Angela Evans excited.
“We’ve had a couple of years of building, and now we are starting to see some growth,” Evans said. “We have a lot of work left to do, but we have a great group back and really think we are going to build on what we did the last two years.”
Gracey Davis, Amber Smith, Sidra Wheeler, Ali White and Ashlynn Walston are back, and Evans said the addition of freshman setter Lauren Bergstrom and libero Sydney Aronson will give the Regents a boost.
The Crusaders return four starters from a year ago — Ellie Van Nice, Charlotte Collins, Savannah Schmitz and Danette Heide.