CEDAR RAPIDS — Kaylee Donner is a multi-tasker.
“One of her teachers told me that when she was done in class, she’d open a textbook from another class, just to get ahead a little bit,” said Chris Deam, athletics director at Cedar Rapids Jefferson. “She has maximized her time to be a high achiever.”
So it’s only natural Donner’s summer has been spent at two places — in a gym in Cedar Falls, and at the softball diamond at Jefferson.
“I feel like I’m living two lives,” Donner said. “It’s just a lot of transition.”
Donner helped elevate the Jefferson volleyball program back to prominence. She won an unlikely — “miraculous,” according to her father — state championship in bowling.
And today, she is honored as the 2019 Gazette Female Athlete of the Year.
Donner is Jefferson’s fifth winner of the award, its first since 1993.
“She’ll be remembered at Jefferson as one of the best to come through, both academically and athletically,” said Brian Erbe, the J-Hawks’ former softball coach. “She embodies what you want all kids to end up like.”
All-state, and a state champ
The school’s all-time leader in digs in a season (531, in 2017) and a career (1,667), Donner was an Elite all-state volleyball selection as a libero. She was a third-team all-state outfielder in softball last season.
Then, there’s the bowling thing. Donner played basketball for three seasons, then realized a club volleyball commitment and another winter of basketball just wasn’t going to mix, even for this multi-tasker.
“I just couldn’t swing it,” Donner said. “Quitting basketball was one of the toughest decisions I ever made. I felt like I was letting the coaches and my teammates down.
“I was talking to my family at Thanksgiving, and they said, ‘Why don’t you go out for bowling?’ I’d probably make the varsity. I probably would be their fourth- or fifth-best bowler.”
“We got her a couple of balls and a pair of shoes,” said her father, Matt Donner, part of a bowling family that spans three generations. “She was a good bowler all season, but not that great.”
Donner made the varsity and was the No. 5 girl on the team with an average of 177.1.
Then came the state tournament in Waterloo.
“I was sitting next to (Deam), and I said to him, ‘She’s going to stop bowling strikes at some point, isn’t she?’” said Donner’s mother, Kandy Keiper Strowmatt.
Her first game was 257. She cooled a bit to 219 in the second game, but her 476 series was 42 pins better than anybody else.
“She goes out and bowls two miraculous games,” her father said. “That shows you her focus.”
“Bowling is such a mental game,” Donner said. “A lot of bowlers get upset if they had a bad first frame. I think it helps that I don’t get down on myself.
“We went up and practiced the night before. The lane was super dry so the ball was hooking a lot. The day we bowled, I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t think I had much to lose. I bowled really well the first game, but I didn’t think much of it.
“When it was over, they announced the leaders from eighth place to first. When they announced the second-place girl, I was just in shock. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’”
The first-year player was a state champion.
Leading a resurgence
If bowling provided Donner’s brightest moment of her high school career, volleyball was her trademark. A 5-foot-4 back-row wizard, she was as responsible as anybody for the J-Hawks’ climb from mediocrity.
“The first week of freshman year, some of us were beating the older girls out of spots, causing a little chaos,” Donner said.
The J-Hawks went 16-21 that season in front of small crowds. Then came a small step (18-18) in 2016, followed by a giant leap.
Jefferson went 39-7 in 2017 and reached the state tournament at the U.S. Cellular Center for the first time in 20 years.
“One of my favorite memories was after the regional final, we all tackled each other afterward,” Donner said. “It was awesome.”
The day before the J-Hawks were to face Linn-Mar in the state quarterfinals, though, Donner stepped on a teammate’s foot in practice. She went to Urgent Care that night, and was diagnosed with three strained ligaments in her foot.
“It was bruised really bad. I couldn’t jump,” she said. “It wasn’t going to stop me from playing.”
Linn-Mar defeated a flat Jefferson squad in the first round.
The J-Hawks returned to state in 2018, and another quarterfinal loss to Linn-Mar concluded their season at 37-7.
“Senior year, we had a full crowd every single match,” Donner said. “We brought a new atmosphere, new life to the program.”
Developing the right mindset
Matt Donner was a multi-sport athlete at Jefferson (Class of 1990), and went on to play baseball at Northwest Louisiana State. Kandy Keiper Strowmatt won 112 games as a pitcher at Cedar Rapids Kennedy (Class of 1992), then pitched at UNI.
Kaylee was introduced to sports at a young age. She showed talent. And attitude.
“I was too competitive in fourth and fifth grade, too cocky,” she said. “I got too emotional during games. In middle school I just told myself, ‘You need to change.’”
Now, she’s a little-kid magnet.
“At youth camp, everybody wanted to be in her group,” Jefferson volleyball coach Amy Norton said. “She has a nice balance. She knows when it’s time to work, and she’s always cracking a joke.”
UNI next ... but softball first
Between her sophomore and junior seasons, Donner committed to play volleyball at UNI.
“Kaylee fell in love instantly with the campus and the coaching staff,” Strowmatt said. “When we left, she said, ‘This is my home.’”
UNI Coach Bobbi Petersen said Donner should expect a big change in pace from the high school game to the Missouri Valley Conference.
“What really stands out about Kaylee is the amount of area she covers,” Petersen said. “She is one of the fastest athletes we’ve seen. It’s a different kind of fast. She doesn’t have to be fast for 100 meters, just fast in that 30-by-30 area. She’s got a great first step, a lot of agility.”
Volleyball is a sport of communication. And there’s a hurdle there for Donner, who has a 75-percent hearing loss in her right ear.
“It hasn’t really affected me much other than when somebody is whispering,” she said. “I try to read lips if I’m standing close to them.
“It’s kind of a big joke now. When I was in left field and (Olivia Erickson) was in center last year, she’d say, ‘I get to be next to your good ear now.’”
Donner could have sat out her senior softball season and spent the whole summer in Cedar Falls, preparing for her freshman season at UNI (she plans to major in speech pathology, partially because of her hearing deficit and partially due to her love of kids).
But, with Petersen’s blessing, she opted for one final summer at Larry Niemeyer Field with the J-Hawks.
“I just wanted to finish out my last season with my best friends,” she said.
Whenever Jefferson is eliminated from the postseason softball tournament, her predominant residence will be Cedar Falls.
“Jefferson definitely won’t be the same without her,” Norton said. “We’re really going to miss her tenacity.”
Kaylee Donner at a glance
Full name: Kaylee Lynn Donner
School: Cedar Rapids Jefferson
Birthdate: Nov. 12, 2000
Family: Mother, Kandy Keiper Strowmatt and her husband Dave Strowmatt; father, Matt Donner and his fiance Danielle Boston; brother, Bryce Donner; stepsisters, Sadie and Sophie Strowmatt and Kylie Cook.
High-school accomplishments: Part of a senior class that led a volleyball revival at Jefferson, sending the J-Hawks to the state tournament in 2017 and 2018. Arguably the state’s best libero, she earned Elite all-state honors after averaging 4.18 digs per set. Owns Jefferson school records for digs in a season (531) and a career (1,667).
A basketball player through her junior year, she bypassed her senior season and instead went out for bowling and won the Class 3A state individual title with a two-game series of 476.
A four-year starter in softball, she was a third-team all-state selection as a junior as the J-Hawks finished third in Class 5A. Jefferson was seventh in 2017.
Future plans: Will play volleyball at the University of Northern Iowa and major in speech pathology.
1. Kaylee Donner, Cedar Rapids Jefferson (2) 35
2. Heather Boeckenstedt, Dyersville Beckman (5) 33
3. Grace Martensen, Benton Community (1) 31
4. Jamie Kofron, Tipton (2) 21
5. Emily Jasper, Cedar Rapids Xavier 12
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES
Lindsey Culver, Cedar Rapids Jefferson
Callyn Fox, Center Point-Urbana
Madison Osborn, Alburnett
Samantha Wall, Maquoketa Valley
Summer Barthelman, Sigourney
Jill Bennett, Linn-Mar
Emma Cooper, Iowa City High
Jaedynn Evans, Iowa City Regina
Mackenzie Hupke, Indpendence
Nichole Kane, Springville
Rachael Kilpatrick, Cedar Rapids Prairie
Emma Koch, Iowa City West
Kylie Kurt, North Linn
Madison Larson, Independence
Kenzie Mantz, Belle Plaine
Sammy Moss, Mount Vernon
Jessica Musgrave, South Tama
Megan Renner, Linn-Mar
Heannah Schutte, MFL MarMac
Peyton Steva, Iowa City West
Rachel Trumm, Cascade
Emily Waterhouse, Cedar Rapids Kennedy
Suzanna Yoder, Iowa Mennonite