JANESVILLE — Kennedy Meister got a head start on her volleyball career.
When there weren’t enough girls to fill Janesville’s fourth-grade club team, Meister and a couple of her third-grade classmates jumped at the chance to play.
Continuity from grade school to high school is part of the formula that has allowed this community with a population of just over 900 to carve out an identity within Northeast Iowa’s volleyball hotbed.
Janesville enters this week’s state tournament as one of 13 qualifiers from Northeast Iowa. Class 1A’s top-ranked team is a favorite to win a fourth championship in the past five years.
Even with an emphasis on youth development and increased popularity, this volleyball success hasn’t come easily. Twenty miles northeast, the town of Tripoli won 11 state championships from 1999 through 2011 and often roadblocked Janesville’s path to state.
It wasn’t until 2010 after the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union had begun separating its top-ranked teams into different postseason regions that Janesville finally broke through. As an attentive fifth-grader, Meister watched the Wildcats make a run into the finals during the school’s state debut — only to lose to Tripoli in the championship match.
Still, a foundation was in place. Janesville was about to become a volleyball town.
“It started getting more popular,” Meister recalls. “More girls started going out after the first group qualified for state. I was there at the qualifying game, as well as state, and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
The Wildcats have qualified for state every season since that 2010 breakthrough with many girls like Meister, a senior with more than 1,000 career kills and digs, elevating the program to new heights. Junior setter Alisa Bengen already has more than 2,000 career assists and classmate Bree Thompson has over 1,000 kills while outside hitter Madison Stanhope and libero Lily Liekweg are also back as starters from last year’s championship run.
“We had a lot of great teams, and for the first 20 years we weren’t able to get there (to state),” said Shelly Sorensen, who was a multi-sport athlete at Janesville in the early 80s before coaching volleyball and softball for the past 27 years. “Once we got there, it was their goal to get back again. We’ve been blessed with great, talented players and coaches that have put in a lot of time to give them opportunity to continue improving their game.”
Sorensen is as committed to teaching basics as she is to coaching the more polished high school athletes. While she heads up the program, the coach is quick to point out it’s the people around her who have built it. Assistant coaches, volunteers and former players join Sorensen by working with multiple youth teams.
Success breeds success, and Sorensen is determined to accommodate a high percentage of the kids in town who want to give volleyball a try.
“When they passed a rule that we couldn’t work with our own high school kids in the offseason, we went down into the junior high and eventually into the fourth grade,” Sorensen said. “We’ve got a lot of teams and it takes a lot of people.
“I just try to provide opportunities for kids to be involved and become part of the program. We stress sportsmanship and just playing for the love of the game. We hope that we hook them early and get them to enjoy the sport and continue all the way through.”
Added Meister, who has been coached by Sorensen since third grade, “It’s really great because they’ve seen you the whole way and they know the potential that you have so they can push you.”
A variety of attacking options, elite defense and passing has often been a formula for success during Janesville’s rise. The program, in turn, has developed some high-caliber athletes.
For the first time this fall, Janesville High alums Kendyl Sorge of UNI and Gillian Gergen of Drake faced off in an NCAA Division I match.
Consistently testing itself against larger schools, Janesville is 7-7 against state qualifiers this season, including a win over 5A qualifier West Des Moines Dowling. Top-ranked teams Dike-New Hartford and Cedar Falls are responsible for three of the Wildcats’ losses.
“We’re competitive when we play them and try to win, but sometimes we come up short,” Meister said of the battles with larger schools. “That just shows us what we have to work on, and in the long run that just helps us out to go for it.
“We all know that we have different roles on the team. Once we put them together, we’re hopefully unbeatable.”