NORTH LIBERTY — The resources were here. The talent was coming.
Randy Dolson expected the Iowa City Liberty volleyball program to grow into something strong and stable.
“I knew it would take some time, but I thought we could get things rolling here,” Dolson said. “If you don’t have a vision to play at state, I don’t know why you’re doing it.”
But 34-2? Second-ranked in Class 5A? A state tournament? In Year 3?
Dolson shook his head.
“No,” he said. “No way.”
Ahead of schedule, the Lightning make their state tournament debut at noon Tuesday at the U.S. Cellular, against No. 7 Pleasant Valley.
“It’s really exciting,” junior setter Haley Hested said last Wednesday. “We’ve been pushing so hard for this all year. I think my body was finally able to relax a little after (a regional final win over Dubuque Hempstead on Monday), and now I’ve caught a cold.”
Dolson is a former coach at the University of Dubuque and Drake University. He was in the high school ranks for 10 years (seven at Dubuque Hempstead, then three at Iowa City West), taking nine teams to state.
While construction at Liberty High School was underway, Scott Kibby (formerly athletics director at Iowa City West) was hired as the principal.
That, and the prospect of starting a program from scratch, intrigued Dolson.
“I loved working with Scott at West. He’s a super-positive person,” Dolson said. “Plus, driving to West was a 25-minute drive. To drive to Liberty would take five minutes. If you can save 50-60 minutes a day in driving, that’s huge.
“I knew there would be some good kids coming. A lot of my better players at West were from North Liberty.”
So, with the new-paint smell still prevalent at Liberty, Dolson and the Lightning went to work. Now a senior, LeeAnn Potter was part of the original nucleus.
“The first two years, we were building a culture for years to come,” Potter said. “Starting from the bottom, it was really cool.”
Liberty was 13-20 in its first season, 19-15 in its second. The Lightning let a two-set lead get away in a 4A regional semifinal against Marion, though.
Even after elimination, teams can practice through the end of the state tournament, and the Lightning took advantage of the opportunity. Joining the veterans were some eighth-graders.
“Wow, they were good,” Hested said.
“That was an eye-opener for the veterans,” Dolson said. “They were going to have to work to keep their positions.”
Now a freshman, Cassidy Hartmann leads the team in kills. Shelby Kimm is in top rotation and Kennedy Daugherty is in the varsity lineup.
Another change was coming. Setter Rylee Fay opted to transfer from West.
“It was a really quick decision after last season,” Fay said. “It was both academic and for volleyball. I wanted smaller classes, and I knew the volleyball program was up and coming.”
Hested was the incumbent at setter, Fay came as a Missouri State University commit.
“At first I was a little nervous,” Hested said. “I finally had the chance to be the setter on a really good team, and here comes this D-I setter. I thought we were going to run a 5-1 and we’d be fighting it out.”
Fay was jittery, too.
“I was open to whatever would work,” she said. “The team was extremely accepting. I was nervous, but it was energizing for me to play here.”
Like Hested, Dolson expected a battle for the setter spot, then decided to implement a 6-2 attack.
“That just shows our depth,” he said. “Everybody bought into it.”
Chemistry grew in the offseason, both on the court and in the weight room.
“The first two years, we didn’t have a strength and conditioning program,” Dolson said. “We lifted, but it wasn’t a solid program.
“Now we have a strength coach (Kelsey McCrea). It has helped us mentally, not just physically. It’s a bonding thing for them, to push each other.”
The Lightning opened the season with a surprising five-set win at Cedar Rapids Xavier, the 2018 4A state runner-up.
“We were in that match, and we looked at each other on the bench, ‘Hey, we’ve got something here,’” Dolson said.
Then Liberty won the Caroline Found Invitational at West, knocking off established programs like West Des Moines Dowling and Ankeny.
The Lightning were 13-0.
“We just kept winning,” Potter said. “It was like, ‘How is this happening?’”
Dolson was asked what this team did best.
“I can’t pinpoint any one thing,” he said.
And maybe that’s the best answer.
“Maybe it’s our overall balance,” he said. “Any kid can contribute at any time. We have kids on the bench that have started before. I’m comfortable bringing them off the bench, and they can contribute.
“No matter what happens (this week), it’s been a very enjoyable year. I feel truly humbled to have the pleasure to work with this group. And we’ve got some more talent coming.”
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