CHAMPAIGN — Cliff Hastings has seen different parts of the country because of successful volleyball teams.
The decorated Parkland coach, though, is just fine with a bus trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Which is where Hastings and his Cobras are bound for come Sunday afternoon.
The site of the NJCAA Division II national tournament will once again welcome the Cobras as one of 16 teams vying for a national title. Parkland (30-1) is the second seed and opens against No. 15 Terra State (15-2), a community college from Fremont, Ohio, at 11 a.m. on Tuesday at the Alliant Energy PowerHouse Arena in Cedar Rapids.
The Cobras won a national title in 2015 in Phoenix and repeated the following year in Charleston, W.Va. Hastings has also guided Parkland to the national tournament in Toledo, Ohio and the Wisconsin Dells.
So, given his experience of leading Parkland to 12 national tournament appearances since 2009 in a variety of locales, which one is his favorite?
“Where we win,” Hastings said. “So if we win in Cedar Rapids, then I’ll love Cedar Rapids, too.”
Hastings has the making of another special group, led by key contributors like outside hitter Halle Everett, setter Summerlyn Smith and defensive specialist Kayla Brandon, a St. Thomas More graduate.
But this next week is more than just about trying to make sure the Cobras are playing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the national championship match. The condensed season that started in late January because of the COVID-19 pandemic has only had one match where family members could watch Parkland play in person.
Loved ones will get the chance to see Parkland play in Iowa, an aspect Hastings is grateful for.
“With COVID cases back on the rise, we asked the girls to remain at Parkland over Easter and limit family time these past few weeks,” Hastings said. “Since they made a sacrifice for our team, I want to make sure they feel some fruits of that sacrifice by getting in some good, quality family time while in Iowa.”
Last month generated sad news, especially since it’s 2021, about the inequities in hosting accommodations by the NCAA in regards to its Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Hastings said he’s never felt like the NJCAA has treated its D-II volleyball national tournament with disregard, no matter the location.
“I’m always appreciative that the NJCAA puts on a nice nationals event for the girls and makes them feel pretty special for a week,” he said. “I was telling a family just last week that while it was great to play in Phoenix, for example, we just played at another junior-college gym so it felt a little bit like just another tournament. But in Charleston and now Cedar Rapids, the host is the city convention center, so playing at a facility of 5,000 to 10,000 capacity is pretty cool.”
The strange circumstances of this season has actually meant more time for the Cobras than in a typical fall slate. The program started practice last October, meaning the players and coaching staff have spent five days a week together for the past six months.
Of course, four more wins and this Parkland volleyball team will have a chance to stay closely connected in the program’s history, much like the 2015 and 2016 teams.
But winning a national title in the spring of 2021 will leave a different lasting impression on Hastings
“Every year is the same in terms of going for that national title,” said Hastings, who has compiled an absurd 575-52 record at Parkland. “The bigger difference this year is simply the appreciation of having the season at all. There were many times in the past year that just having the opportunity to play someone else seemed improbable. We’re ready to go try to win, but I’m just thankful now before we even go to nationals, where perhaps I have taken the regular season a bit too much for granted in the past.”
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.