Redhawks make triumphant return

‘It’s our turn’: No. 12 North Tama knocks off fourth-ranked Lisbon

The 12th-ranked North Tama volleyball team celebrates after defeating No. 4 Lisbon in the Class 1A Region 6 final on Wednesday night at Van Horne. The Redhawks advanced to state for the third time in the last five seasons with a 17-25, 27-25, 25-21, 25-23.

The early jitters were obvious. North Tama’s first set was filled with errors and anxiousness, and the Redhawks went down 25-17.

What happened next was a three-set display of grit, intensity and quality from both the Redhawks and their opponents, Class 1A No. 4 Lisbon. The Lions were in search of their first-ever appearance at state — No. 12 North Tama was hoping to get back to state for the third time in five seasons.

A hard-fought match ended with North Tama’s coach, Channing Halstead, “Not knowing whether to cry, scream or laugh.”

It also ended with the Redhawks celebrating on the court at Benton Community School long after the final whistle was blown, 3-1 winners over the Lions and heading to the state tournament at the Alliant Energy Powerhouse next week in Cedar Rapids.

“They’ve been through it, now it’s their turn to do it,” Halstead said. “I’m so proud of them. We put up with a lot of negativity, we put up with a lot of disrespect. We play a really loaded schedule, you know, so we don’t look as flashy by record but we just come out and play Redhawk volleyball. We’re confident in what we do.

“We knew we had it, and dammit, we did it.”

The 30-10 Redhawks did not begin the night looking like the team most likely to advance. Lisbon jumped on the Redhawks around the middle of the set and didn’t let up, posting a 25-17 win and drawing first blood in convincing fashion. The tipping Lisbon did threw off North Tama’s defense at first, something that Halstead expected heading into the match.

In the huddle, Halstead had to get the team back on course and back to being itself.

Setter Jadyn Rausch said the team wasn’t being aggressive enough and needed to change. What happened in the second set was exactly that.

“I think mentally we just weren’t ourselves,” Rausch said. “We’re usually the aggressors and we get in peoples’ heads. We just turned it around, they were in our heads at first and we turned it around. Now we know that we can come back from anything.”

Lisbon led for much of the second set. North Tama’s fight was better, though, and when the Redhawks trailed 25-24, they needed one more push to change the course of the match.

Three points later, it was a whole new match at 1-1.

A blistering start to the third set saw North Tama take a 13-4 lead, forcing Libson to use up both of its timeouts for the set early on. The Redhawks cooled off slightly, multiple times allowing the Lions within six points, but things were in hand at 24-18. Three points for Lisbon led to Halstead calling a timeout. North Tama closed out the set the next play and took a 2-1 lead.

More back-and-forth action was the name of the game in set four. Numerous times, the set was tied. Neither team was giving an inch.

In an intense, highly-competitive environment, this is where the junior core of this team felt their time learning under the 2019 state semi-finalists the most.

This team owes a lot to the 2019 group, said junior Lainey Willenbring. Willenbring played on the 2019 team as a defensive specialist/libero, but was an outside hitter for North Tama in 2021.

“Oh my god, [they helped] a ton,” Willenbring said. “It pushed me so much, and it showed me how to be a good volleyball player and be a good teammate to the others.”

With the set poised at 17-16 Lisbon, North Tama put one final push in. A 17-16 deficit turned into a crucial 24-17 lead. The Redhawks were one point away.

Then Lisbon scored six straight points. Halstead called another timeout, trying to calm the Redhawks’ nerves.

“I think we were just so anxious,” Halstead said. “We got a little hesitant, a little sloppy. It was just a matter of trying to be aggressive. Our motto is ‘Defend to the End’ but i also wanted to be a little more offensive at the end.”

Just a moment later, the Redhawks found the final point. Roaring to life, the Redhawks’ bench poured onto the court. It was done — they were heading back.

The celebrations, the jubilation and the chance to win a state title are the culmination of a two-year journey of growth for the Redhawks, who spent 2020 rebuilding with a young core that didn’t play much in their freshman seasons.

Outside hitter Shae Ewoldt was excited to complete the rebuild.

“It feels good to be back, to finally come back and rebuild with our team after graduating those six seniors,” Ewoldt said.

It makes this win even sweeter for the Redhawks,

North Tama is the No. 7 seed in the Class 1A state bracket. In the quarterfinals, the team will face off with No. 2 Le Mars Gehlen Catholic. The match takes place Tuesday at 6 p.m.