There's title talk at Xavier

Prep volleyball: Saints return nucleus from last year's state semifinal team, and more talent is coming

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The level of talent and depth has never been higher.

Expectations have never been greater.

“We definitely know we’re going to have a target on our backs,” said Charlotte Richards, a returning first-team all-state hitter for the Cedar Rapids Xavier volleyball team. “(Coach) Austin (Filer) has high standards.

“We’re going to practice every day like a state championship is on the line.”

Ultimately and eventually, that’s the Saints’ aim this season. Championship banners fill the rafters of Ron Thillen Gymnasium — lots for soccer and basketball and a smattering of other sports.

None for volleyball. Yet.

Title talk would have seemed silly a year ago at this time. Xavier was 15-22 in 2015 and was introducing a coach who had never led a high school program before.

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Filer ripped everything apart, then rebuilt from scratch.

“We had to relearn the fundamentals. He took everything we knew, and said we’re going to do it a completely different way,” outside hitter Ellie McDermott said.

“We bought into everything he said. It’s elite coaching. We put all our trust in him.”

Filer, 31, graduated from Cedar Valley Christian in 2004. He had been a club-team coach and was on the Mount Mercy staff before the Xavier job opened.

“I think he saw potential in us that maybe others didn’t see,” senior setter Rachel Sodawasser said. “He’s very motivated and has a high IQ for volleyball.”

The Saints won their first 18 matches, then later swept their way to the state tournament. They outlasted Marion in a competitive four-set Class 4A first-round match, then were swept by eventual champion Dubuque Wahlert in the semifinals and retired at 32-10.

Five starters (seniors Richards and McDermott, and juniors Akeela Jefferson, Keera Ball and Emily Jasper) return, as do Sodawasser and junior Olivia Richards from the rotation. That alone would have made Xavier on the short list of preseason 4A favorites.

That’s not the end of it. Filer welcomes three extremely promising freshmen — 6-foot-4 Eve Magill, whom he said is getting serious looks from high-level Division-I programs, as well as setter Jazmine Yamilkoski and 5-11 hitter Katy Garrison.

“This is the first team I’ve had that all 12 kids are competing for spots,” Filer said. “At times our all-state kids are killing it, and at times, they’re getting beat by freshmen.”

By all accounts, the Saints are far ahead of where they were last year at this time. There’s no transition period, just hit the ground running.

“I’m not teaching technique now as much as I’m teaching IQ,” Filer said. “They know the technique and the fundamentals now. Now it’s thinking the game ... ‘Is this a good play? What did I see there?’”

“We are starting at a really good pace and tempo,” said Richards, who will join older sister Madsy at NCAA Division-II Missouri-St. Louis next year. “We have lots of good talk and energy.”

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union will release its preseason rankings early this week. It won’t be a surprise if the Saints are No. 1 in 4A.

“If we are, we can’t be lazy about it,” Sodawasser said. “We’ve got to keep getting better every day.”

The Saints open Tuesday at home against Iowa City High.

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