CHAMPAIGN — Parkland volleyball qualified for each of the previous 13 NJCAA Division II national tournaments, including 12 in a row under current coach Cliff Hastings, entering the fall 2021 season.
So it’s not unusual for Hastings to set an early goal of yet another nationals appearance for his present squad.
But he took it a little further than that.
“The first day of practice I can remember Cliff saying, ‘This is the team. This is the year we’re going to win nationals,’” said Isabella Classen, a third-year defensive specialist with the Cobras. “That’s been our mindset the entire year so far, and going into the postseason, I think we’re really excited for it.”
The third-seeded Cobras (52-3) begin their national tournament stay at 9 a.m. Thursday versus 14th-seeded Richard Bland (19-8) at Alliant Energy Powerhouse Arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Four is a big number facing Hastings’ program, as well. Not only is Parkland seeking its fourth national championship in program history (and first since 2016), but it’s also trying to avoid a fourth consecutive season ending just shy of the ultimate prize.
The Cobras have taken tournament runner-up status in each of its last three trips to the national tournament.
“It’s always the expectation of Parkland volleyball to be in that championship match,” Hastings said. “But upon the first day of practice — even prior to practice — I knew this group was special. I knew we had the talent. They were just a very athletic, hardworking group, so I knew it would be one to go win it again.”
Plenty of athletes have contributed to the Cobras’ latest superb season.
Freshman setter Sophie Young leads the country in assists with 1,841 and ranks second in assists per set at 11.80. Freshman middle Kat Blase leads Parkland in kills with 431, good for 15th in the country, and teammate Arika Richardson (429) isn’t far behind. Second-year middle Jayden Sortor (350 kills) and third-year outside hitter Halle Everett (274 kills) add to the balanced offense for Parkland.
“It is an expectation (to go to nationals), but we see it as an opportunity to hold ourselves to a high standard,” Everett said. “We’re going to, as always, prepare to go as far as we can and do as well as we can.”
Everett, Classen, Sortor, Richardson and third-year defensive specialist Kayla Brandon were just some of the current Cobras who also played key roles in Parkland’s last national title match berth, which ended with a four-set loss to Johnson County (Kan.) on April 15 earlier this year.
“There are so many components that go into a volleyball game, and Cliff has been preparing us all season for this national tournament,” said Brandon, a St. Thomas More graduate. “When we play like a family and have fun, I think that’s when we’re our most successful, and I think that’ll take us really far.”
Hastings admitted the trio of Brandon, Classen and freshman defensive specialist/Mahomet-Seymour graduate Josie Hess has offered a wrinkle he wasn’t expecting in the Cobras’ style. Hess leads the Cobras in digs with 785, with Brandon second in 529.
“Big offense, big blocking — that’s what we’ve been known for. But I do think our three back-row players bring something very unique where it’s a lot of speed defensively,” Hastings said. “If we aren’t getting the blocks right away, we do have the defense to back it up.”
Though Hastings acknowledged he never wants to look too far ahead in a postseason bracket, it’s worth noting Parkland’s most likely potential semifinal opponent.
Second-seeded Iowa Central (40-1) beat the Cobras twice over the course of eight days during the regular season, with the Tritons winning in three sets on Sept. 3 and in five sets on Sept. 10. Parkland’s other loss was to fourth-seeded Johnson County (29-6), which resides on the opposite side of the tournament draw along with No. 1 seed Cowley (Kan.) College (38-0), but the Cobras have a 34-match win streak going into Thursday.
“We’ve seen some opponents that we’ve fallen to that we’re excited to see again,” Everett said. “We’ve really been able to work out some of our kinks on and off the floor. ... Our postseason trajectory is going up, so I’m excited about that.”
Additionally, Brandon is one of five former area high school athletes on Hastings’ roster, joined by Hess, second-year middle Kanay Benschneider (Centennial), second-year defensive specialist Ella Godsell (Unity) and freshman right-side Katy Shockey (Champaign Central). Brandon is the only member of this quintet who will conclude her Parkland volleyball career this week in Iowa.
Preferably with a celebration at the end of Saturday night’s title match.
“It’s honestly pretty bittersweet,” Brandon said. “(I’m) hoping to bring back a national championship to Champaign and to Parkland.”