CEDAR FALLS — #Positivity has been trending since the summer within the Cedar Falls High volleyball team.
This year’s Tigers feature a varsity rotation that has made the jump from benchwarmers into one of the state’s most successful teams in the social media era.
Cedar Falls (44-0) will attempt to become Iowa’s first volleyball squad since Dike-New Hartford in 2012 to complete a perfect season, starting with Tuesday’s noon Class 5A state tournament-opening match against Waukee (29-14). No school has gone undefeated in Iowa’s largest class since Davenport Central went 30-0-2 in 1981.
“We’ve all been so eager to get on the court and now it’s finally our time,” Cedar Falls senior middle Dara Hulstein said.
Hulstein is among the players thriving in the main rotation following the graduation of seven seniors and five Division I athletes from last season’s team that captured the program’s first state title.
Committed to play volleyball at the Naval Academy, Hulstein joins junior 6-foot-5 Dayton commit Alayna Yates to form a tandem of middle hitters who accepted NCAA Division I scholarship offers before earning their first varsity starts. They’ve combined to average five kills and two blocks per set with hitting percentages well over .400.
Holding their own at times with last year’s starters during 6-on-6 scrimmages, Hulstein says she and the other first-time varsity contributors had a feeling they’d be good. Few, however, could have imagined they’d be this good.
Cedar Falls took 5A’s No. 1 ranking from Ankeny Centennial by sweeping the Jaguars on their own court opening weekend and never looked back. The Tigers secured 36 consecutive sweeps before dropping a single set.
The team chemistry and attitude that has guided Cedar Falls started to develop during the initial summer team camp at Marquette University.
Coach Matt Johnson knew it would be a challenge for everyone to maintain a positive attitude throughout the three-day schedule that included 14 hours of volleyball followed by nights spent inside dorms lacking air conditioning. Fearing complaints could spread like a wildfire, they joked around about having a hashtag positivity.
If one person began to whine about any topic, from a workout to what was on the dinner menu, another teammate would quickly respond with hashtag positivity.
“It was neat that they policed themselves,” Johnson said “That’s part of being a team.”
The only place where complaints were allowed was inside the elevator on the ride up to the seventh floor of the dormitories. At one point, all 14 girls squeezed together and let loose.
“It was so loud with complaining,” Johnson related. “I said to the girls, ‘You can keep riding it up and down for another 20 minutes if you want to complain some more, but it was so hot.’”
Throughout this season, the positivity hashtag has resurfaced, at times, while others joke around about needing to find an elevator to do some complaining. The team has developed a tight connection off the court, maintaining an active group chat and consistently getting together for sleepovers.
“We’re super competitive in practice and we also like to have fun,” said junior Akacia Brown, the top returner from last year’s team, who leads the Tigers with 3.63 kills per set on .388 hitting while adding 2.79 digs. “We’re so close that our team chemistry works really well. We all trust each other a lot.”
Emily Clapp is the only returning senior contributor. Emily Hayes and Ashley Schildroth join Hulstein as seniors eagerly awaiting their opportunity to compete under the state spotlight. Juniors Emerson Green (setter) and Kirsten Graves (libero) have also flourished as first-year varsity starters in key positions.
“It took some patience,” Hulstein said. “But it also helped me grow as a person. Not everything is about you, and you’ve just got to keep working and working until it’s your turn to shine.”
While last year’s championship team was led by a senior class that advanced one step farther at state three consecutive seasons, this year’s seniors have made the most of their only shot.
“I think it was our wanting not to be the rebuilding year,” Hulstein said. “We’ve really wanted to show that we have what it takes, too, that we can work as a team and use our work ethic to get to the end goal.”
WELCOME BACK: New Hampton and Gladbrook-Reinbeck have broken through within Northeast Iowa’s volleyball hotbed. The Chickasaws are in the state field for the first time since 1974, while Gladbrook-Reinbeck has qualified for the first time since 1988.
Six seniors have complemented sophomore Saari Kuehl’s breakout season for G-R (4.62 kills per set, .338 hitting). The Rebels avenged a five-set loss to North Tama with a regional semifinal sweep before qualifying for state with a four-set win over Ar-We-Va.
New Hampton returned four starters from last year’s team that lost in a four-set regional final to eventual 3A champion Waterloo Columbus.
“From the first day of this season, we talked about one of our biggest goals is the state tournament,” New Hampton coach Jessica Geerts said. “Everything we do in practice revolves around that big goal. There are a lot of two-, three-, four-sport athletes on our team. It’s a great group of athletic girls.
“They’re a very quiet team, not outspoken. They’re about getting the job done.”
MOVING FORWARD: These Northeast Iowa teams know the road to Cedar Rapids.
Class 1A’s Starmont is in the field for a third consecutive season, and Tripoli has made 19 state tournament trips over the last 21 years. Class 3A’s Osage has extended its streak of state trips to three. Independence in Class 4A returns five starters from last year’s state-qualifying team.
Coach Joe Schmitz’s Mustangs have perhaps the toughest opening-round draw. They’ll face two-time defending champion Dubuque Wahlert.
“We feel like coming in we’re a much more seasoned team than we were last year,” Schmitz said. “I think the kids will come in with a sense of knowing what to expect and won’t let the moment become too big for them.”
DYNASTY DUO: Dike-New Hartford enters the 2A state tournament as the No. 5 seed. The Wolverines won last year’s 2A title after winning the 3A championship in 2016. The school owns 13 titles all-time.
Janesville features one of the state’s top senior classes. The battle-tested Wildcats are the odds-on favorites to win a fourth consecutive 1A championship.