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Refocused Redhawks seek retribution in 2019

August 23, 2019
CJ Eilers - Editor ( , Traer Star-Clipper

Head Coach: Channing Halstead

2018 Record: 26-8 (L to Gladbrook-Reinbeck in second round of Regionals)

All it took was one game to send a promising 2018 season crashing down on the North Tama volleyball program. The team remained mostly intact from their school's first State berth in 2017 and were confident as ever as they competed another 25-win regular season last year. The Redhawks trashed Baxter at home to kick off Regional play. As predicted, North Tama next hosted rival Gladbrook-Reinbeck for the second round. The Redhawks had defeated the Rebels three times during the regular season at home, on a neutral court and even in Reinbeck only weeks prior. A sea of fans in red clashed with an opposing wave of blue. Blue triumphed as G-R shocked the home team in three sets on their way to a State berth themselves and left the Redhawks with their tears and one big question on their mind: how?

Article Photos

Front row: Abby DeBoef, Katie Kopriva, Grace Thorsen, Isabel Sierra, Takoa Kopriva, Carlie Gorder, Katelyn Kucera, Dylan Rohlfsen, Alexis Hansen. Back row: Coach Channing Halstead, Jade Rausch, Misheelt Od Tumurbaatar, Lainey Willenbring, Andi Dvorak, Mya Sierra, Molly Vogeler, Shae Ewoldt, Ireland Harmsen, Aubree Monat, Heidi Kucera, Kaitlyn Calderwood, Coach Karisa Kladivo.

"It was the worst loss in my volleyball career and it's hard to accept the outcome," senior outside hitter Katie Kopriva said. "As a player, you had such high expectations for a season just to get upset by a team you've beat three times. It was heartbreaking."

Mental toughness had been consistently addressed last season as coach Channing Halstead worked to get the team back to the State tournament in Cedar Rapids. She knew the level her team was capable of and didn't see it in that season-ending loss.

"Obviously last season didn't end how we wanted it to," Halstead said. "We didn't perform to the level we should and the level we were performing at the weeks prior to that match. G-R came out and played the best match they possibly could have against us while we played statistically one of the worst games we could have played. Now it's motivation and energy for this year because we can't hang our heads on a game that happened last year."

Enter 2019 and the Redhawks now have a senior class consisting of six of the most successful volleyball athletes in North Tama history. Katie Kopriva, named First Team South Conference in 2018, enters her final season after tallying 328 kills to lead the Redhawks last year, also posting 178 digs, 27 blocks and successfully serving at a .91 clip with 42 aces. Libero Takoa Kopriva, also a First Team South Conference, led the Redhawks with 397 and hit .958 of her serves to go along with 38 aces. Setter Isabel Sierra found herself sharing duties in 2018, yet tallied 428 assists to go along with 94 digs.

"These six seniors need to take on the highest level possible they can this season," Halstead said. "Isabel is at 1,500 assists in her career, Katie is at 1,000 kills, Takoa has almost 1,300 digs. Those are numbers not a lot of people put up. I want them to set the standard higher. As a group, they have always been successful in volleyball, so I want them to go out the highest they can."

Both Koprivas were named team captains this season along with Katelyn Kucera, a Second-Team Conference selection and described as a "go-to" leader for North Tama according to Halstead.

"Our team chemistry is extremely strong because we have a relationship like a family," senior Katelyn Kucera said. "We can rely on each other no matter what happens on or off the court."

Rounding out the senior class are Carlie Gorder in the middle (82 kills, 10 blocks in 2018) and Grace Thorsen (234 assists, .92 serving with a team-leading 53 aces), both of whom will be big pieces for the Redhawks this season offensively with the graduation of Karly Jans at outside hitter.

"With losing Karly, we lose a lot of our power hitting," Halstead said. "We're not going to have as much power this year, but Grace comes in with good ball control and is an all-around volleyball player. We're going to see points from her, but in different ways. We're also moving our middles around more to accommodate that loss. Carlie has a wicked slide hit and needs to translate her game from practice to the court."

Another important offensive piece comes in junior Abby DeBoef, who finished 2018 with 137 kills, 39 digs and 15 blocks to also be selected Second-Team South Conference.

"With Abby, we are really working on mixing up her shots and angles," Halstead said. "Abby has power and is one of our best blockers. We're going to continue working on her defense because she knows that's an area she needs to improve. She has taken the initiative and we've made defensive adjustments to help her. Statistically, Abby was right up there with our top hitters, so it won't be a big adjustment for her."

While the Redhawk defense will remain as active and stingy as in the past two seasons, Halstead changed up tip coverage after issues arose last year. Rotations will see better people at picking up tips in spots they can, which has led to improve hitting throughout their summer play. The rotation will see more defensive specialists earning time this season, with names like freshman Lainey Willenbring and sophomore Kaitlyn Calderwood being a part of a stout defense with Takoa Kopriva at the helm.

"Takoa is one of the most underrated players in the state," Halstead said. "When we played this summer, she'd turn heads and coaches wondered 'who is this kid?' Nothing with this team happens without Takoa. She's growing more verbal and can still be more vocal. 1,300 digs in three years is a pretty good average."

Juniors Dylan Rohlfsen and Alexis Hansen will see the court as upperclassmen in serving and middle blocking roles respectively. The North Tama program also will be boosted by freshmen Shae Ewoldt, Ireland Harmsen, Jade Rausch and Willenbring, a group Halstead stated "absolutely loves volleyball" and is poised to help the program in the coming years and potentially this season.

"It's convenient to have these freshman in practice on the other side opposite varsity because they have a lot of energy and keep balls going," Halstead said. "You might not see much of them on the court with an impact this season, but they are doing a lot. Shae will play in certain occasions to gain some experience. We will see Jade this season because of the amount of athleticism she brings is hard to keep off the court. She needs to work more on her ball placement as a setter."

While certainly a veteran team with several pieces moving into different roles, last season exposed that even a tight-knit team can suffer from mental slip-ups and look past a potentially dangerous opponent. From the start of winter play to practicing for the upcoming season, the Redhawks' leadership has been addressing their weaknesses.

"We definitely improved our mental game as far as going over everything we needed to work on pre-game and talking as a team," Kucera said. "We knew there were a lot of things we needed to fix and communicating needed to step up, along with the physical aspects of the game."

The Redhawks will find themselves competing in a similar schedule to last season, including cross-divisional conference matches with Tripoli coming to North Tama and the Redhawks going up to Janesville this year. North Tama has captured the Iowa Star South Conference title for the last two seasons and is poised to repeat in 2019.

"We plan to take care of our side of the conference again without any problems," Halstead said. "We're fortunate to schedule Janesville and Tripoli for good 1A competition. Our weekend tournaments are important to get good competition for us and to help our standings. We'll gain lots of confidence in conference play and try different things if need be."

One major difference from 2018 to 2019 will be the reclassification of several 2A schools such as Belle Plaine and BCLUW to 1A, providing more competition to the Redhawks during weekend tournaments when they will potentially face both schools.

"1A has gotten bigger because a lot of different teams moved down, so we need to take that into consideration and don't take any opponent lightly," Kucera said. "We want to go into every game this season with the mentality we have to play our hardest."

Yet there's also no way to fully contain the excitement that is the final season for these six seniors, who have lead North Tama to back-to-back 25+ win seasons the past two years and given the program its highest level of success since volleyball became a recognized sport in the mid 1990s.

"I hope that younger girls see our grade and see how much passion we have for the sport," Kopriva said. "I hope they too can have that passion and play their hearts out."

While the team's mindset this year is focused on "mini victories instead of the big picture," the Redhawks will work their way to their ultimate goal: State.

"Our biggest goal is to get to State and we don't want to stop there," Kucera said. "Our end result is to be state champs, and the only way to do that is to take this season game-by-game."

"Us six seniors knowing this is our last year playing together will make us step up and work our best to get a State trophy," Kopriva added. "I've had to be a leader in the past, but I really want to be that positive captain for all the young girls this season."

North Tama will open its season with a tournament at Meskwaki on Saturday, Aug. 31 before hitting the road for a triangular with host South Hardin and South Hamilton. The Redhawks will host their own home tournament on Saturday, Sept. 7.



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