On paper, the North Polk volleyball team didn’t come off as an imposing unit entering the 2017 season.
The Comets began the season fresh off the first state tournament appearance in program history. But they no longer had all-state outside hitter Hannah Becker — now playing Division 1 ball at Southern Illinois — nor talented libero Courtney Bonewitz and valuable middle hitters Rebecca Rimathe and Riley Murphy.
But North Polk head volleyball coach Matt Overton managed to put together another strong team this fall. Veteran setters Grace Nelson and Danielle Bonewitz made the Comet attack run smoothly, and several new hitters stepped up to make the Comets a tough out in the postseason.
North Polk ended up topping the 20-win mark for the sixth season in a row. The Comets went 22-16 overall and finished with another winning Heart of Iowa Conference record at 4-3.
“We had a very good season,” Overton said. “We were in every game that we played this year.”
Junior outside hitter Carolyn Steffen gave North Polk an experienced weapon up front.
Seniors Leah Cam and Emily Larson and sophomore Jaedon Murphy stepped in at middle hitter and sophomore Hailey Becker — Hannah’s younger sister — took over at right-side hitter. Senior Rebecca Ley returned with experience at outside hitter and junior Bella Rademacher also stepped up to make big contributions at the net.
In the back row, junior Nora Aschoff moved from defensive specialist to the libero spot. Junior Katie Scott returned to help out at defensive specialist.
“Working with this group was a lot of fun,” Overton said. “The thing that I enjoyed the most was how hard they worked to get better and to become one team.”
Despite the inexperience, the season started off well for North Polk. The Comets won 11 of their first 15 matches.
North Polk opened the season going 4-2 at the Bondurant-Farrar Invitational. The Comets knocked off Davis County, Carroll, Boone and Williamsburg and fell to Bondurant-Farrar and West Des Moines Valley.
On Aug. 29, the Comets swept Webster City and defeated Ballard in a home triangular meet. They went 3-2 at the BCLUW Invite Sept. 2 with wins over Prairie City-Monroe, BCLUW and Hudson and losses to Benton Community and South Tama.
The Comets avenged their loss to South Tama and also took out Newton in a triangular meet at South Tama Sept. 7.
Two days later North Polk posted 2-3 record at the Southeast Polk Invite. The Comets took out Nevada and Southeast Polk and suffered two losses to Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln and one setback against Pella.
HOIC play opened with a loss against five-time defending conference champion Nevada at Nevada. On Sept. 16, the Comets split four matches at the Ballard Invitational, downing Greene County and Woodward-Granger and losing to Pella and Johnston.
Roland-Story handed North Polk another HOIC loss on Sept. 19 in four sets. The Comets came back to get their first conference win a week later by sweeping Saydel and they also swept Greene County on Oct. 3.
On Oct. 5, North Polk earned a four-set HOIC win over South Hamilton and suffered a non-conference loss to Grand View Christian in a home triangular. At the Oskaloosa Invite on Oct. 7, the Comets swept Fairfield and Chariton and came up short against Oskaloosa and Marshalltown.
North Polk was dealt a four-set loss to a Gilbert team that clinched the HOIC title on Oct. 10. The Comets ended the regular season two days later by sweeping PCM at Monroe.
Overton said inconsistency in matches plagued his team during the season, but that his players also showed a lot of grit to often overcome that obstacle.
“The biggest struggle was (other teams) starting fast,” Overton said. “We would let teams take a big lead on us, so that meant that we were always coming from behind.”
North Polk opened Class 3A regional competition Oct. 18 with a sweep over Chariton. That set up a showdown with Gilbert — ranked fifth in 3A — in the regional semifinals at Gilbert on Oct. 24.
The regional semifinal match saw Gilbert on the verge of a sweep after dominating in the first two sets and building a huge lead in the third. But North Polk used a miraculous rally to claim a 25-20 win in the third set and then kept up the momentum to win the fourth by a 25-23 margin.
The Comets continued to fight the Tigers hard in the fifth set, but they ran out of steam, dropping a 15-11 heartbreaker.
“I would have to say that the biggest highlight was coming back on Gilbert,” Overton said.
North Polk finished the season with 831 kills — 8.15 per set — and 473 errors in 2,873 attacks for a .125 kill-efficiency rate. The Comets served at an 85.3-percent rate with 201 aces at 1.97 per set and they totaled 1,481 digs at 14.52 per set and 232 blocks at 2.27 per set.
Nelson made the all-HOIC second team and Bonewitz was honorable mention as they combined to help North Polk average 7.54 assists per set.
Nelson handed out 316 assists at 3.26 per set. She also totaled 116 digs, 48 aces and 17 kills.
Bonewitz dished out 388 assists at 3.88 per set. She finished with 165 digs 18 kills and 38 aces.
Steffen was the top hitter for the Comets and a strong all-around performer. She made the all-HOIC second team.
Steffen powered down 285 kills at 2.88 per set with a .208 efficiency rate and she tallied 274 digs, 34 aces and 18 blocks.
Ley put up 126 kills, 65 digs and 15 blocks and Becker recorded 113 kills, 34 blocks and 30 digs. Cam produced 91 kills, 52 blocks, 18 digs and 10 aces; Murphy 73 kills, 45 blocks and 16 digs and Larson 53 kills, 31 digs, 30 blocks and 12 aces.
Rademacher delivered 31 kills, 28 blocks and 11 digs and junior Liz Turk contributed six kills and blocks apiece.
Aschoff landed on the all-HOIC first team after an outstanding season at libero. She recorded 443 digs at 4.43 per set, handed out 39 assists, picked up 29 aces and tacked on 18 kills.
Scott finished with 295 digs at 3.11 per set. She also served at a 92-percent clip with 24 aces.
Junior Jalen Heintz chipped in eight digs and two blocks in six sets. Freshman Hailey Steffen had nine assists and seven digs in 13 sets.
Losing two starting setters, a pair of middle hitters and one outside hitter means North Polk will have to make up for a lot of lost production again next season.
“We will have our outside hitter — Carolyn Steffen — back as a four-year starter, as well as our libero Nora Aschoff, who has played varsity for four years,” Overton said. “We will (also) have some underclassmen playing a big role next year.”
With Aschoff and Carolyn Steffen leading the way, the Comets have enough returning talent to earn another 20-win season and make good runs at the HOIC title and reaching state in 2018.