CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Parkland volleyball coach Cliff Hastings found himself in something of an unfamiliar situation Tuesday morning in the opening round of the NJCAA Division II national championships.
Parkland competing for a national title isn’t new. The Cobras have reached 12 national championships since 2009.
What was new for Hastings was watching his team struggle in its opening-round match against Terra State (Ohio).
The Cobras were a little tense.
A bit overwhelmed throughout the match.
Just not as sharp as usual.
“This group of players, none of them beside (sophomore setter Summerlyn Smith) played at nationals last year,” Hastings said, which is counter to a typical Parkland team. “While they’ve been through the experience, playing that first match, I think, was just overwhelming for them. Which it is for all teams. I, as a coach, am not used to that with our team. We’re usually pretty relaxed and confident in that first match. We looked pretty skittish.”
Parkland toughed out its first match, beating Terra State 25-20, 25-21, 23-25, 25-21, and the Cobras (32-1) booked a spot in Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal against Iowa Central with a 25-20, 25-9, 25-16 victory against Sauk Valley.
Consider the nerves gone.
“In the quarterfinals, which obviously should be the tougher of the two matches, we just really settled down and played some phenomenal defense,” Hastings said, singling out middle blockers Katie Kaiser (seven blocks) and Jayden Sortor and Brittney Litton (15 digs) and Isabella Classen (7 digs) in the back row.
Parkland wasn’t as tense in the quarterfinals, which allowed the Cobras to lock into a rhythm offensively, too. Halle Everett led the team with 11 kills against Sauk Valley, while Smith set a balanced attack around her.
“The morning match, they could free ball a ball to us, and we were passing the ball 10-foot line and Summer was running all over the place trying to get balls to the outside,” Hastings said. “Everything (Tuesday) evening — even just hard-down balls — we were passing dimes to the net and letting Summer run an offense. That obviously translates to much better numbers — both scoreboard and hitting percentage.”
Wednesday’s semifinal match against Iowa Central will be Parkland’s first look at the Tritons (21-3). The Cobras haven’t played Iowa Central in the past couple seasons, but in a normal year, would have at least had some common opponents to get a feel for how the match might go. The delayed-pandemic season meant Parkland played an overwhelmingly in-state schedule.
What Hastings does know is the Tritons have a dominant force in the middle in freshman Angel Baylark. The 5-foot-11 middle blocker had 21 kills and four blocks during Iowa Central’s two tournament wins Monday.
“Kind of almost the antithesis of us,” Hastings said of the Tritons. “They have just an incredible athlete middle who can take over games both with her block and offensively, where we are much stronger at the pins. … We really just need to let the middle get hers and slow down everybody else. Everybody else is pretty much a mere mortal. If we can focus on everybody else, the middle by herself can’t beat us.”