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Soaring to new heights with Redhawk volleyball

October 25, 2019
CJ Eilers ( , Traer Star-Clipper

This two-part series explores the six seniors of the North Tama volleyball program and their journey since fifth grade. Our second issue explores the shared success of the program over their unfinished high school career. Check out the October 18 issue for more on their early careers and coming together as a group.

When Carlie Gorder, Katie Kopriva, Takoa Kopriva, Katelyn Kucera and Isabel Sierra moved on to the high school level in 2016, Channing Halstead had been coaching varsity for two years. Even in a small school district like North Tama County, playing multiple freshman isn't common. Halstead played each of the five girls significant minutes during their freshman season.

"When they came into high school, I never guessed Carlie Gorder would be a starter," Halstead said. "Isabel played quite a bit as a freshman. Katie played in all rotations alongside Takoa. Katelyn served quite a bit. Literally all of them except Grace played their freshman years."

Article Photos

NT Class of 2020 volleyball all grown up! From left to right: Grace Thorsen, Isabel Sierra, Carlie Gorder, Coach Channing Halstead, Takoa Kopriva, Katie Kopriva and Katelyn Kucera on an emotional Senior Night for athletes and coach alike.

The 2016 team finished 16-12, yet a winning record for the program wasn't unheard of. The North Tama volleyball program had experienced winning seasons in its history, yet breaking through to a 20-win season eluded the Redhawks in recent seasons. The school had never been to a State tournament before, even as Iowa expanded into additional classes. Success would have to wait as the five best friends quickly adapted to high school ball and their roles. Sierra didn't start most of the games that season, yet she learned the game playing with Marika Kopriva.

"I remember starting for the first time was exciting," Sierra said. "They get to score the first points and get the excitement started."

Sierra, along with Takoa at libero, Katie at outside hitter and Gorder at middle all started as Kucera came in frequently as a serving specialist in their sophomore year. That was the year everything for North Tama volleyball changed.

"We were coming in under the radar in 2017, but we knew we had what was needed to be successful," Halstead said. "That team had great leadership in Lydia Schafer and Andrea Ubben. I'll never be able to give those two enough credit for leading this young group. After their freshman year, the 2020 girls had better ball control and more experience. Combined with the leadership of Lydia and Andrea, their will to win was huge that season."

The Redhawks took 1A volleyball by storm as they won their first 11 games of the 2017 season. Alongside the seniors and determined juniors in Carissa Calderwood and Karly Jans, North Tama finished the regular season with a school record 26 wins and an Iowa Star South title. However, a bigger goal lie ahead for the Redhawks: go to State.

After cruising past Collins-Maxwell in the first round of the postseason, the Redhawks faced a familiar opponent in Montezuma, whom they had defeated earlier in the season. The Bravettes had 31 wins on the season and were poised to come into Traer with an upset in mind. Montezuma went up 2-0 in the match and it seemed like North Tama's season was over. Instead, the young Redhawks mounted the greatest comeback of their careers, winning the next three sets and keeping their State dreams alive. All it took afterwards was a sweep of Coon Rapids-Bayard to secure that dream.

"It was an amazing experience and a great accomplishment being the first team from North Tama to qualify for State," Takoa said. "Many people overlooked our volleyball program so it made it that much more rewarding to our team. After the match, we were all so excited and the community was proud."

In Cedar Rapids, the Redhawks drew Springville as their opponent. The Orioles were 38-2 on the season coming into the match with the underdog Redhawks and swiftly demonstrated why they were among Iowa's best teams that season. The Redhawks would be swept 25-15, 25-21, 25-21. Katie would finish with 12 kills and Takoa 23 digs in their last game as sophomores. Their final record was 29-8.

"That was such a big experience for all of us," Kucera said. "We had put in a lot of hard work that season. To be sophomores playing at the State tournament and putting in all the dedication was incredible."

One more surprise came as Katie was named 1st Team All-Iowa by the Des Moines Register and received numerous other accolades. Takoa also would receive All-State recognition from several publications and associations.

"Being All-State was a good feeling, even with our loss," Katie said. "We got swept in that game, but people still saw who I am as a player and what we are as a team."

As 2017 turned into 2018, the girls found themselves eager for the next season. They lost the leadership of Schafer and Ubben, yet gained back a familiar face when Grace Thorsen returned to Traer in the summer of 2018. She had stayed in close contact with her friends over the years, coming back frequently to visit her mother and attend the 2018 prom. When Thorsen returned, getting back to State was on everyone's mind.

"I remember being super jealous when they went to State that year," Thorsen said. "I listened to all the interviews and rushed to Iowa to support them."

Yet Thorsen had experienced success with her team at Crystal Lake Central. She participated in the 2017 Illinois State Volleyball Tournament as a setter for the team.

"It was a crazy, fun experience playing in the State tournament in Illinois with girls who had so much talent," Thorsen said. "Just to watch and be in the moment was so cool."

Returning home was heavy on Thorsen's heart, so coming back was not a hard decision. She missed her friends, family and Halstead's coaching. With the next season looming and being on a new team, she had work to do to prepare.

"It was easier getting back into the system here because I started returning in the summer," Thorsen said. "When I came to visit in Iowa, I'd go to the open gyms, come to workouts and still play in camps in Illinois."

Needless to say, Thorsen was welcomed back by Halstead to bring the six best friends back on the same court once again.

"I always hoped she would come back," Halstead said. "Volleyball wise, she's always been someone I can move around. She can hit, she can set and play middle back. Since Grace came back, she's helped our program in so many ways."

The Redhawks opened the 2018 season in the top five of Class 1A. Despite losing their very first game of the season, North Tama would win their opening tournament at Meskwaki and go 10-1 before hosting Janesville in a tightly contested match. The Wildcats would prevail once again, yet the Redhawks would only lose back-to-back games once against 5A Cedar Falls and Pleasant Valley. North Tama once again finished their regular season with 20+ wins and an Iowa Star South title. Deja vu seemed to be written all over the season despite fierce competition along the way.

"We had high expectations in 2018 to be better than last year," Katie said. "I think we dealt with a lot of pressure and had a target on our backs. People were out to beat us."

Postseason arrived again and the Redhawks received a first round bye, sweeping conference rival Baxter in the second round. Everything seemed to be going according to plan for the Redhawks.

"We were hoping to go back to State and do more damage," Takao said. "I think we got ahead of ourselves."

The third round of Regionals saw North Tama take on neighboring Gladbrook-Reinbeck for the fourth time that season. During the regular season, the Redhawks had defeated the Rebels at home, on a neutral court and even in Reinbeck. Victory seemed almost guaranteed as the Rebels had failed to secure a win over their red rivals three times.

Instead, G-R came into Traer and delivered the first punch, taking the first set 25-18. A similar situation to the previous season unfolded as the Rebels took the second set 25-17. Disbelief shown in the eyes of the six juniors and crowded gym painted red on one side, blue on the other. The Redhawks came back to make the third set competitive. It was win or end the season on their own floor. Unfortunately for North Tama, the season came to a shocking conclusion as the Redhawks were indeed swept in their own gym. The Rebels would go on to earn their first State berth in 30 years while every single Redhawk player left the court in tears.

"We weren't mentally tough and yet we knew we had expectations to meet," Kucera said. "That loss to G-R left us in shock. We didn't know what to do at first."

Expectations weren't met in the eyes of the players. For perhaps the very first time in their playing careers, the Class of 2020 was handed a loss that would change their mindset. From then on, the girls and Halstead focused on the mental game, a factor each player has referenced as why they lost that night. Knowing they had one more season left next year, the girls devoted their energy to winter volleyball and improving their "mental game".

"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."

2019. Senior year. One more chance to return to State for the Class of 2020. After years of playing volleyball together, six best friends can see the end in sight. After a successful winter and AAU season, the Redhawks were ready to take on a challenging year. Changes were made to the lineup as Thorsen stepped into a hitting role.

"This year has been interesting in learning different aspects of the game," Thorsen said. "I've been a setter since fourth grade, but I was ready to take on a whole new part of the game."

Katie, Takoa and Kucera were named captains for the 2019 season, voted by their teammates both old and new. It was a new Redhawk teams, one with the Class of 2020 now in the leadership position.

"Coming into this year, I knew I really wanted to take up a leadership role and be a bigger role model for the underclassmen," Kucera said. "Being named a team captain was a big deal for me. I get on the court and I try to lift everyone up after errors, moving us on and staying positive."

The Redhawks got off to a 12-0 start on the season, winning tournaments at Meskwaki and at home as they again find themselves ranked in the top five. However, those records and rankings bear little meaning nowadays for the humbled senior class.

"Throughout this season, we've been working on our mental presence, which is helping us this season," Kucera said. "We aren't focused on stats or rankings. Instead, we've focused on us."

However, that hasn't stopped the Redhawks from recognizing and embracing individual achievement. In practice, Gorder has been praised as one of their best scorers. Yet Halstead had seen that performance not translate onto the court, until this year. Gorder is third on the team with 128 kills, a career high.

"We've had really great success as a team this year and I feel my slides have improved, which has helped a lot with our season," Gorder said.

North Tama has had its share of ups and downs this season. They have defeated fellow ranked 1A teams in Montezuma, Tripoli and Wapsie Valley to prove they are among the best teams in their class. A win over Janesville continued to elude the Redhawks in two chances this season. The Redhawks last week ended their regular season with a 23-6 record and their third consecutive Iowa Star South title.

"Winning the conference three times in a row is a great feeling," Gorder said. "It feels good showing our success over the years. Doing it as a team with the same five girls makes it even better."

The end of these six girls' high school career is approaching as the postseason begins. Once again, the Redhawks received a first round bye and the odds seemed overwhelmingly favorably. However, a loss to BCLUW, a team in their Regional bracket, has the seniors working hard to prepare for what may be the regional final.

"This is our last shot to give it all we got," Sierra said. "I've enjoyed making memories with my team. We always have a good time. I will miss all our team bondings and spending my Saturdays with them."

But as hard as the imminent end is for the seniors, it's just as hard for Halstead after watching these six girls grow up over the years.

"It scares me in the sense that these girls have been here for my whole time with the program," Halstead said. "These girls have set the standard and a lot of younger girls want to keep that standard going. People know who North Tama volleyball is because of these girls and I can't thank them enough. My dream has always been to build a program and they've let me do that. I truly hope this season ends with them being successful."

Three consecutive conference titles. The first State berth in school history. 94 wins in four seasons with more on the horizon this postseason. This is the Class of 2020.

"It's exciting for us and the school to have this success," Katie said. "Once we're all older, we'll have all these memories of playing together."

The Class of 2020 will begin their final postseason on Monday, Oct. 28 against Collins-Maxwell. If North Tama makes the third round on Halloween, they will continue to play at home. The Regional final will be held at Marshalltown High School on Tuesday, Nov. 5.



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