116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
SPRINGVILLE — Usually, it’s “Coach.”
Sometimes, Nia Howard slips, and it’s “Dad.”
And when she really needs to be heard?
“If he’s across the gym, sometimes I’ll yell, ‘Claude,’” Nia said.
Such is the life of a coach’s kid, when the lines between coach and parent intersect, and sometimes blur.
For the past three years, it has worked for Springville volleyball coach Claude Howard and Nia, his eldest daughter and the Orioles’ senior setter.
It has worked very well.
With Nia piloting the attack, Springville has advanced to three consecutive state tournaments, and the Orioles are likely to return to the big stage this year, this time at Xtream Arena in Coralville.
Springville returns five seniors from last year’s Class 1A runner-up squad. Nia was a first-team all-state selection.
What would you expect? This kid has been around the game since the start.
“We put a ball in her hands at a young age,” Claude said. “When I was a sophomore coach at Marion, she rode around in the ball cart a lot during practice.”
“Her mom (Tiel Howard) started giving her pointers here and there. By fifth or sixth grade, you could tell she was pretty good. She was always a decent athlete.”
Well, better than merely decent. Nia was a state champion in the 1A 400-meter dash as a sophomore.
That’s the same event in which Claude, now 47, considered his forte while on the track and field team at Cornell College, from which he graduated in 1997.
A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., Claude also found Tiel and volleyball at Cornell. He fell in love with both.
“Tiel had been a setter in high school, and I started playing on a college club team at the end of my freshman year,” Claude said. “I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to get into coaching.”
He started as a sophomore coach, then an assistant, and when the Springville varsity job came open, he grabbed the opportunity and ran with it.
Now in his ninth year, Claude — whose day job is as director of security and environmental safety at Mercy Medical Center — owns a 255-90 record at Springville with six state appearances.
Nia was a spectator for the first three, then joined the varsity team in 2019.
“It was scary,” she said. “I was nervous as a freshman. After practice, Dad grouped the varsity and I was in the varsity group. I was like, ‘I made it, I’m ready to work.’”
That first team essentially played .500 ball through most of the season, then caught fire in regionals and upset Lisbon in the regional final to advance to state.
“That was insane, honestly,” Nia said. “We weren’t supposed to win that match. Getting to state with Dad, that was a huge goal for me. I remember hugging him after the (Lisbon) match.”
The Orioles got back to state in 2020, then got all the way to the finals last year before dropping a four-setter to Burlington Notre Dame.
Nia dished out 920 assists last season, running her career total to 2,209. It’s likely she will close out her career with more than 3,000.
“What she does better than a lot of setters is that she is able to get the out-of-system ball and put a playable ball out there,” Claude said.
“She has the ability to make a play. She’s quick to the ball. She has nice hands. She has become smarter and sees the court well.”
Both father and daughter insist that volleyball talk is minimal in the Howard home.
“She deserves a chance to be at home and decompress,” Claude said. “She hears enough for the two hours we’re at practice. We try not to bring it home.”
There is plenty to keep the family busy. In addition to Nia and 11-year-old brother Yoseph, there is 2-year-old sister Simone, and as Nia said, “It’s different having a small kid in the house.”
Nia, who is weighing several Division-III collegiate offers in-state, will have plentiful offensive options again this fall.
Outside hitter Kennady Breitfelder was the second-leading attacker last year, and middles Lily Clark and Molly Stamp provide another pair of offensive threats. Ashlynne Zaruba is back to help anchor the back row.
“What’s different about this team is how hungry it is to learn and get better,” Claude said. “(Stamp and Breitfelder) can play six rotations. (Clark) is coming on as a six-rotation player. I trust her on defense and serve receive.
“These kids have been in a lot of big moments. They understand the value of hard work and getting better all the time.
“They’re not afraid to talk about what they want. They want to go back to state. Now, what’s it going to take?”