CEDAR RAPIDS -- Opportunities for redemption in athletics aren't given, they're earned.
Practice by practice, match by match, the Cedar Falls volleyball team has been on a mission to return to Class 5A's state final.
That drive culminated in a sweep over Mississippi Valley Conference rival Linn-Mar Thursday morning as Cedar Falls reached its destination with a convincing semifinal victory, 25-13, 25-18, 25-15, in front of a large U.S. Cellular crowd.
A team that didn't graduate a single player from the group that was defeated by Ankeny Centennial in last year's championship match, Cedar Falls (42-2) has swept its way into finals for the second time in as many seasons. A second chance at winning the program's first state volleyball championship will come 10 a.m. Friday against West Des Moines Valley, a straight-set winner over three-time defending champion Centennial.
"Our kids have stayed really composed and really focused," Cedar Falls coach Matt Johnson said after his team out-hit Linn-Mar, .318 to .037. "I told them in the locker room it's not very often that you walk out of here with a really sour taste like we did last year, with how we played (in the finals), and have a chance to get on that same stage and show that we can perform better."
It's an opportunity that has fueled setter Tayah Mahi and her talented senior classmates.
Mahi, a UNI volleyball recruit, is one of three Cedar Falls seniors that signed with NCAA Division I volleyball programs Wednesday. Cynthia Wolf, who led the Tigers with 10 kills, signed a letter of intent to play basketball at UNI.
"I'm excited to get back," Mahi said. "Hopefully, we play the way we want to, redeem ourselves and show we are not the team that was in the finals last year."
Facing a Linn-Mar team that Cedar Falls had defeated twice this season, Johnson knew it would be important to serve aggressive and stay in system. That allowed Wolf to use her 6-foot-3 size to take advantage of a match-up on the right side, while 6-foot-2 middle Grace Burken added six kills, stressing the defense of Linn-Mar (30-11) with attacks on slides.
Linn-Mar didn't string three points together until a run midway through the second set and rallied to tie that frame at 16.
That's when Akacia Brown, Cedar Falls' newest weapon, came to life. The energetic sophomore took a full swing on a down-line kill before dealing an ace on the ensuing point and the Tigers closed out the set on a 9-2 run.
Cedar Falls then pulled away in set three after Taylor Lynch followed back-row kill with an ace to take a 15-10 lead, and Linn-Mar was unable to string any points together for the remainder of the match.
"We had to get going a little after we lost our focus," said Brown, who finished with nine kills. "But once we got it back, and we got the momentum back, it was just really easy to fit in with the energy."
In her first season of varsity volleyball, Brown will fulfill a dream of playing for a championship that her older sister, current University of Kentucky volleyball middle Kaz Brown, never experienced during her standout prep career.
"She's kind of the new piece when we've got so many returners," Johnson said. "She's just enthusiastic, and it's big to have her there to get excited and get fired up, and at the same time let the other girls know she's going to contribute."
Looking forward to playing in her first state final, Brown added, "I'm super excited and I really just want to play for the seniors, because this is their last time and I love that group. We're family and this is their redemption."