Confidence helped the North Polk volleyball team overcome having to shake things up to continue its winning ways in 2018.
North Polk entered the season needing to replace its top outside hitter, two setters and two middle hitters off last year’s 22-16 team that reached the regional semifinals. The Comets had to do so facing their usual tough slate of opposition that included tournaments featuring many larger schools at Bondurant-Farrar, Southeast Polk, Ballard and Oskaloosa.
As a result, North Polk took its lumps from time to time. But the Comets also found ways to score some big victories.
By the time the season was completed, North Polk had reached the 20-win mark for the seventh year in a row, finishing 20-16. The Comets also tied for first in the Heart of Iowa Conference with a 6-1 conference mark.
“We had a really good season this year,” North Polk head volleyball coach Matt Overton said. “Out of the eight starters, six of them were in new positions. Throughout the season we had our ups and downs; we lost some games that we should not have lost. We also won some games that people did not think we would win.”
The Comets moved senior Nora Aschoff from libero to outside hitter and she still earned first-team all-HOIC honors for the second year in a row. Senior Katie Scott moved from defensive specialist to the libero, senior Jalen Heintz filled in as a defensive specialist and sophomore Chloe Dougherty also helped out in the back row.
Senior Bella Rademacher moved over a position to help out Jaedon Murphy at middle hitter and senior Liz Turk moved into a starting role at outside hitter. Sophomore Sydney Anderson also entered the varsity lineup at outside hitter and junior Hailey Becker gave the Comets some much-needed experience on the floor at right-side hitter.
Sophomore Hailey Steffen and freshman Emily Byrd took over as the team’s setters.
Even with several new faces and having to adjust to new positions, North Polk managed to give teams fits night after night.
“All in all, this is a season that came down to strong confident players,” Overton said. “Players that believed in each other and worked hard for each other.”
North Polk began the season splitting six matches at the Bondurant-Farrar Invitational. The Comets swept Boone, Pella Christian and Williamsburg and fell to two Class 5A foes — Ames and Des Moines Roosevelt — and eventual 4A state qualifier Pella.
The Comets defeated Ballard and Webster City at a triangular in Huxley, then went 2-3 at the BCLUW Invite. North Polk knocked off Prairie City-Monroe and South Tama and came up short against Hudson, Benton and BCLUW in Conrad.
On Sept. 6, North Polk swept both Newton and Grand View Christian at a home triangular meet. Two days later, the Comets went through a rough patch by finishing 0-4 at the Southeast Polk Invite, with losses to Red Oak, West Des Moines Valley, Indianola and Southeast Polk.
HOIC competition began on Sept. 13 and North Polk bounced back from its tough day at Southeast Polk to sweep PCM. The Comets then split four matches at the Ballard Invitational, taking down Grand View Christian and Montezuma and losing to Pella and Johnston.
North Polk swept Greene County for its second HOIC victory on Sept. 18. A a week later, the Comets suffered their lone conference loss to old nemesis Nevada in four sets at Alleman.
On Sept. 27, the Comets earned an exciting five-set victory over Gilbert to stay alive in the conference race. North Polk followed with two more HOIC sweeps on the road against Saydel and South Hamilton.
In its final tournament of the season, North Polk traveled to Oskaloosa on Oct. 6 and went 2-2. The Comets defeated Oskaloosa and Ottumwa and fell to Gilbert and Fairfield.
With the season coming to a close, North Polk saved its best for last. The Comets won a thrilling comeback over Roland-Story in five sets at home to end the regular season and then gained a huge measure of revenge against Nevada by defeating the Cubs in four sets during the 3A regional quarterfinals at Nevada.
“The biggest highlight of the year was when we played Roland-Story our house and won,” Overton said. “They are a really good team and they had what are the top hitters in the state, and we were able to pull that game off. Also, the Nevada game in regionals. Nevada beat us during the regular season, then we were able to beat them in the regionals.”
The win over Roland-Story earned North Polk a share with Nevada for the best record in the conference.
Nevada was officially named conference champion after winning the head-to-head matchup between the two teams in the regular season. But with their regional quarterfinal victory over the Cubs, the Comets had a legit claim as the best team in the conference.
North Polk faced off against a strong Roland-Story team in the regional semifinals at Nevada. The Comets fought back from a 2-0 deficit to take the third set, but they eventually fell in four sets to end the season.
Overton said strong leadership was being a big factor in his team’s ability to reach 20 wins yet again.
“The biggest strength that we had this year was having a good senior class,” Overton said. “The way they carried themselves throughout the games and the season really influenced the younger group. When we were in close games we were able to rely on the seniors to mentally pull us through.”
The Comet coach said the biggest obstacle the team had to overcome was a lack of talking on the court.
“Due to people being a new position, our communication struggled at times,” Overton said. “Our biggest challenge was just communicating with one another.”
Better communication keyed North Polk’s late wins against Roland-Story and Nevada.
As a team, North Polk finished with 900 kills and 405 attack errors, tallying a 0.190 kill-efficiency rate. The Comets averaged 9.57 kills per set.
Defensively, North Polk tallied 1,627 digs at 17.31 per set and 186 blocks at 1.98 per set. The Comets served at an 83.8-percent clip, with 176 aces at 1.87 per set.
Aschoff was North Polk’s top all-around performer. She performed admirably, filling in at a new position for Carolyn Steffen, who missed the season with an ACL injury.
Aschoff finished with 195 kills at 2.12 per set, with a .281 efficiency rate and 357 digs at 3.88 per set. She served at an 86.8-percent rate with 35 aces and totaled 29 assists and 12 blocks.
Scott also made the all-HOIC first team.
Scott had 420 digs at 5.12 per set. She also served at an 84.8-percent rate with 34 aces and had 40 assists.
Steffen made the all-HOIC second team in her first season as varsity setter.
Steffen recorded 366 assists at 4.07 per set and also came up with 192 digs at 2.13 per set and 14 kills. Steffen went 192 of 228 serving with 21 aces.
Byrd handed out 281 assists ant 3.65 per set. She chipped in 121 digs at 1.57 per set and served at an 87.8 percent success rate with 18 aces.
Rademacher and Turk were both all-HOIC honorable mention performers.
Rademacher delivered 129 kills at 1.45 per set with a 0.174 efficiency rate. She also had 50 blocks at 0.56 per set and 35 digs.
Turk slammed home 160 kills at 1.84 per set with a 0.205 efficiency rate. She added 64 digs and 14 blocks.
Anderson came through with 146 kills at 1.59 per set on a 0.129 efficiency rate and she added 60 digs, 29 blocks and 21 aces.
Murphy put up 133 kills at 1.46 per set with a 0.233 efficiency rate. She led the team in blocks with 54 at 0.59 per set and tacked on 49 digs.
Becker finished with 84 kills at 1.65 per set with a 0.164 efficiency rate. She also picked up 14 aces and 12 blocks.
Heintz finished with 193 digs at 2.41 per set and she was successful on 86.4 percent of her serves with 25 aces. Dougherty delivered 55 digs and went 47 of 61 serving with five aces.
Sophomores Elli Mandernach, Sadie Long and Alex Drent also made some varsity contributions. Mandernach and Long each had 12 kills and Drent picked up two aces.
Losing Aschoff, Scott, Rademacher, Turk, Heintz and Carolyn Steffen won’t be easy.
“The senior class had a mission since their freshman year of changing the culture of North Polk volleyball, and they accomplish their goal this year,” Overton said. “They were outstanding leaders and amazing communicators to their teammates and coaching staff.”
Overton was especially thankful for Steffen’s dedication to the program, even though she was unable to play in her final season.
“She played at the varsity level starting her freshman year,” Overton said. “(This year) she came to every practice, every game and every tournament. She was an excellent motivator to the team. She played a pivotal role in our growth in communicating as a team.”
Overton is banking on the leadership provided by his seniors rubbing off on the younger players as they attempt to keep the Comets’ winning tradition going in 2018.
“Next season will be a rebuilding year,” Overton said. “I will only have three returning starters. So we will be having players again at new positions. Due to this year’s senior leadership, I think that the younger class will be ready to fill the open positions.”