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How six best friends helped build a volleyball program

October 21, 2019
CJ Eilers - Editor ( , Traer Star-Clipper

This two-part series explores the six seniors of the North Tama volleyball program and their journey since fifth grade. The second part will be published in the October 25 issue.

North Tama Elementary recess is the scene of young children playing on the playground just west of the school, partaking in a friendly game of tag or maybe shooting a few hoops. But for six fifth graders in 2012, recess ordinarily meant one thing: volleyball, lots and lots of volleyball. Carlie Gorder, Katie Kopriva, Takoa Kopriva, Katelyn Kucera, Isabel Sierra and Grace Thorsen attended a school not necessarily known for its volleyball prowess. North Tama had never been to a State tournament in the sport and had only a few winning seasons to its name. Yet, the six best friends at a young age loved playing volleyball.

"This is the first group of kids I've met that love volleyball just as much as I do," coach Channing Halstead, a high school standout and collegiate setter at Wartburg College said. "I remember Mr. Youel had to buy a volleyball for recess just because of them. They were always more than eager to get better."

Article Photos

From left to right: Grace Thorsen, Takoa Kopriva, Carlie Gorder, Isabel Sierra, Katelyn Kucera and Katie Kopriva in fifth grade. Photo submitted by Kathy Kucera.

The six girls had already been friends since kindergarten together in Traer, a fact that would prove useful when they became old enough to participate in school activities, volleyball chief among those activities.

"We started playing together on the court in fifth grade and it was so much fun," Kucera said. "Playing together and being best friends at such a young age helped our chemistry and communication early. Everything we've put into volleyball over the years is special because we're teammates and friends at the same time."

Halstead, the daughter of assistant volleyball coach Madonna Merchant at powerhouse Dike-New Hartford, had a dream: to build a volleyball program from the ground up while somehow managing to also direct a band program. The spark to her dream came when she coached these six friends and their peers.

"They were my first fifth grade group and the first North Tama AAU team to win a tournament, Halstead said." I remember their very last tournament of their fifth grade winter season was at Union and they won it."

Katie remembers that first tournament and the excitement it generated with the team's families. The girls and Halstead swiftly developed a bond that persisted throughout their elementary and middle school careers. North Tama suddenly was going from small tournaments to playing some of the top programs in the state in a matter of years.

"Being her first set of fifth graders has made us connect with her right away," Katie said. "She saw the same things she saw in herself, mainly the love for the game. We knew we had a passion for the sport and had a lot of fun together."

Roles were established early based off their individual skills and interests. For Gorder, all she wanted to do was whack the ball like she'd seen the older students do growing up. As her best friends got her into the sport, she decided playing on the court with them was how she wanted to be successful.

"Middle school was really successful for us," Gorder said. "It helped having all the same girls throughout our whole career. We knew how to play with each other."

Sierra had initially started out as a setter for the program, yet a suggestion by Merchant to Halstead quickly changed that. "I remember my mom was saying Isabel could set and I was thinking 'what?'" Halstead said. "She's always had the soft, catchy hands and as a former setter myself I liked that. Isabel is even-keel and hardly ever gets upset, which is something you definitely need out of a setter. She's got a goofy personality to shake the stress off. I've pushed her over the years to the point she's probably ready to be done by this year."

"Channing helped me transition from being a hitter to a setter because it would benefit the team the most," Sierra said. "I understood that as a setter, you need to push yourself 100 percent every game to be successful."

One element of that success came with Sierra and Katie developing an unquestionable chemistry as a setter-hitter combination early. Sierra learned where her teammate liked to get the ball and clicked almost immediately in her role, which she's occupied ever since.

"We always joked about how their positions have evolved over the years," Halstead said. "Katelyn used to play middle and Takoa used to hit. I vividly remember thinking Katie could be one hell of a player if she continued to grow because she was about as tall as me at the time. Isabel has been setting Katie since fifth grade. I knew Takoa would probably be libero one day. They all have evolved since then."

Katie and Takoa are more than just inseparable friends. They are also cousins and part of the Kopriva bloodline that coaches such as Tom McDermott to this day remember fondly for their athletic ability and competitiveness. Both their fathers play collegiate baseball, Takoa's father moving up to the professional level in his career. While the two girls have their unique personalities, playing with each other is the highlight of their high school careers.

"It's fun because we both want to win and we're going to do it together," Katie said. "We come from a competitive family and we have the mentality to win."

"I've been playing with Katie since fifth grade and we have fun together," Takoa added. "We push each other to do our best."

The six best friends would become five for five years as Thorsen left with her father to attend school in Illinois. They would stay in close touch, yet it would awhile before the group would truly reunite as Thorsen developed independently at Crystal Lake Central.

"I remember growing up in Traer and playing with these girls all the time," Thorsen said. "When I was away, I missed everything about being with them. Big schools were good and there were a lot of opportunities, but I wanted to be around them again."

Life went on in Traer. According to Halstead, the Class of 2020 won every single tournament in sixth and seventh grade, drawing attention from area coaches and making a name for North Tama.

"They have me since the beginning for almost every tournament," Halstead said. "Their parents have always trusted me with my crazy ideas, such as big tournaments. Their folks have done nothing but encourage them over the years."

The writing was on the wall for the future of North Tama volleyball. Could anyone have guessed what was to come? When presented with the scenario of someone coming up to her and saying this was a group that would lead the Redhawks to their first State berth and reach three conference titles, Halstead had only one answer.

"Yes, I would have believed it."



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