Sydney Clark, a senior at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, where she recently concluded her volleyball career, wanted to share her thoughts about her love for the sport and what she learned, especially this past year.
She started playing volleyball nine years ago, first in YMCA leagues while in elementary school, and then club when she was in the sixth grade.
“I made the decision to sign with Central Iowa Select (CIS but now named Club Ignit Select) because the coaches were extremely inviting and it offered me exciting opportunities from a young age to compete,” she told us. “Being able to travel the country for volleyball was one of the most memorable experiences I have from my childhood and pushed me to continue playing in high school.”
Also like so many, Sydney, a defensive specialist, dreamed of playing college volleyball.
“Unfortunately, last winter I received the news I had edema in my back that had the potential to turn into a fracture if I continued playing and lifting at the pace I was currently keeping,” she said. “I knew this meant I would have to not only slow down in club and high school volleyball, but it most likely meant college volleyball wasn’t in the picture for me.”
After she graduates from high school, Sydney is headed to the University of Iowa where she will study business data analytics.
And she is hardly done with volleyball.
“I have high hopes,” she said, “of getting involved in youth coaching programs in Iowa City.”
Her story starts last March:
I mindlessly begin lacing up my shoes while listening to the sound of my teammates chatting and start their stretching, all of which has become background noise in this familiar muscle memory routine.
I drag my kneepads over my ankles, making each perfect adjustment to set them in place, I tighten my high ponytail, and add a double knot to both shoes. The simplicity of this pattern sets my mind at ease, knowing I was in a place I felt most comfortable: the gym.
I move to my feet and make my way out to the court with the rest of my team, happily immersed in a moment I would eventually realize I took for granted.
Because just a week after leaving the gym from this practice, I was told my season was over, due to COVID-19, leaving me distraught and worried I would never get to see the court again.
This was especially difficult because I have been surrounded by volleyball for as long as I can remember.
My childhood memories consist of going to watch local tournaments, getting to see matches at the college level, and helping out at high school practices from a very young age.
And my volleyball roots run deep.
When most people hear the name Dolfi Kalm, they think of the coach, the man named 2017 Assistant Volleyball Coach of the Year, who led two different teams to Iowa high school volleyball state titles. Or they might think of the man who won a 70-and-under gold medal at the 2015 USA Volleyball masters nationals.
However, when I hear the name Dolfi Kalm, I think of my grandpa.
My grandpa practically raised me into the game, teaching me the fundamentals of volleyball before I even entered elementary school.
As a kid I would practice my approach around the house, jumping right-left, right-left, going up and down the stairs and create thundering echoes around my house. Little routines like this bonded me to the game, and as a result, my grandpa and I became extremely close. We always had something to talk about, and as I got older he became my go-to pepper partner in the yard, and eventually my biggest supporter, who came to every tournament possible throughout my career.
It is because of my grandpa that I found my passion for the sport at a young age, leading me to play for over nine years.
I started volleyball in small, local leagues, but quickly transitioned to club by my sixth-grade year, finding my home at Central Iowa Select (now Club Ignit Select). From this point on, volleyball became one of the biggest aspects of my life, taking up weeknights with practices, and weekends in the car to travel to tournaments.
Filled with hotel rooms and fast food, these moments became some of the most memorable experiences of my life. Although the days were long, and my body grew black and blue from practice, I never became sick of it. I viewed volleyball as an escape, and a place I could go to not think and just play!
So my gratitude for the game is what drove me into a world of panic after being told I couldn’t go to practice, tournaments, or even nationals last spring.
I found myself moping in my bedroom, reminiscing of times in the gym or at tournaments, selfishly thinking about all that I was missing and how it was taken away in a mere blink of an eye. However, as the spring went on I eventually started to embrace the struggle I was going through and found ways to better myself and my skill set for my hopeful upcoming senior season. I began to run through all of the fundamental drills my grandpa taught me as a kid, finding any and every way to get touches without being in a gym. I spent hours passing a ball against our garage, annoying my family the same way I did when I was just learning the game. This spring humbled my character as a volleyball player and helped me to never take a second for granted in my final season, setting the ultimate goal of winning a state championship.
Over the summer, sports in Iowa began to dance on a thin line, as COVID-19 was still a prevalent threat to athletics, each week bringing a sense of unpredictability and fear.
When the news broke that fall high school sports would be given a chance to happen in Iowa, although we had missed out on all preseason camps and practices, no one complained:
We were told we could play volleyball!
Going into the first day of official practice our team felt really good about where we stood: We had just been placed first in preseason rankings, as well as seventh in the AVCA/USA Today national poll, and we had all stayed in good shape over quarantine, giving us the idea we carried an edge over the competition.
However, we quickly realized as much as we had tried to prepare, it simply didn’t matter when it came to the season ahead. Wearing masks became mandatory during practices and on the bench, an adjustment we never thought we would have to make, and that took a toll on our team mentally and physically. While we dealt with the frustration of a new team — we lost three seniors from the year before, two of whom are on college rosters — and some expected struggles in practice, we also faced the unfamiliar new protocols (no high fives, social distancing, no 6v6 scrimmages, etc.).
The sum of it all seemed to add more pressure than usual, caused by the unforeseeable future that was our 2020 “COVID led” season.
Our coaches felt the same concerns.
“I think the fears surrounding what COVID and our state regulations could do to our season really made us narrow in on what we could control versus what we couldn’t,” said our Valley head coach Jeremy Mikesell. “We definitely spent more time thinking about how we improve ourselves in the short term rather than scouting opponents weeks out as we would usually do.”
This became a theme for our team, and a new focus for the season.
The lack of a preseason and time playing together took a toll on our team morale both on the court and off.
Almost halfway through the season we were still struggling to find that perfect “click” as a team on the court and began to face the adversity that comes with losing matches, something most of us weren’t used to. The seniors were especially struggling to find a rhythm because we hardly had any time to get to know the new additions, let alone lead an entire team through this season full of unknowns.
“The toughest thing about COVID was losing the intimacy of the team,” said Payton Lombardi, our senior team captain. “With limited contact and no preseason, it’s tough to build that chemistry that is so important to win games. Volleyball is 100% a team sport. If you can’t get everyone to ‘buy-in’ winning is going to be tough.”
While our season wasn’t going as we had hoped, we found a glimmer of hope at the Skutt Invitational in Omaha, Nebraska, in late October. As a team, we went into the day with a sense of determination and focus that had been missing all season. This was brought on by the intimidation of our match against the top-ranked team in the nation in Skutt Catholic. It was more than humbling to be pushed by a team of this caliber. Although we didn’t end up winning the tournament, we found a newfound respect for each other and our skill as a team, suddenly realizing we had a lot of work to do before the upcoming state tournament.
Our trip to Omaha helped our team set a lot of things in perspective. We were lucky to be having a season (as many other states were not so fortunate), our entire team was healthy, and despite our rough patches Valley High was headed to the state tournament for the seventh consecutive year. Knowing all of this, we really pushed ourselves in the final weeks of our season, trying to stay focused and intentional throughout practice and take it upon ourselves to become better every time we were in the gym.
As a team, we grew tremendously in this time, pushing the mental and physical boundaries in us all to just go one rep further each time. We finally began to embrace the struggle around us and while it took all season, we were finally in a place to just play volleyball, and truly let go of some of the pressure on our shoulders.
Although we headed into our first game at state with the best mentality we had held all season, our play didn’t quite measure that strength on the court. It was a heartbreaking and confusing loss for our team, because we felt as though we were more ready than we had been all season, but it reminded us yet again that the game of volleyball is full of unpredictability and adversity, and it doesn’t always end in the ways you’d hope.
(Fourth-ranked Valley lost to No. 5 Liberty of Iowa City 25-20, 20-25, 25-17, 26-24 in the Class 5A quarterfinals. Valley junior Hayden Kubik, whose sister Madi plays at Nebraska, led with 25 kills and Anna Bernhard had 11. Sydney had two digs and an assist.)
As a senior, I knew my time as a high school volleyball player had come to an end.
I began to realize that even though this season had been far from normal, I had learned more in the past couple of months than I had in all of my years as a player. I accepted that volleyball would always be something that made me feel at home, as well as pushed me to be a leader when times get tough and you don’t quite know what lies ahead.
This season allowed for a lot of reflection, and I have gained a much greater appreciation for all of the little things I have experienced throughout my time in the sport. I learned to be persistent as a young player with my grandpa, helping me serve hundreds of balls until I got just one in the court, and I found ways to meet new people and gain a higher respect for my teammates and opponents through my years with club volleyball.
Most importantly, I have grasped the reality that nothing is guaranteed, not even the beloved game of volleyball, so I must value the opportunities I am given and find ways to turn every experience into something from which I can learn and get better.
The 2020 Valley team finished 17-7. The seniors were Anna Bernhard, Sydney Clark, Jenna Herting, Leah Jones, Payton Lombardi, Carley Motz, and Katie Stevens. The juniors were Hayden Kubik, Ellie Morrow, and Meredith Reiker. The sophomores were Brenna Gion and Olivia Lombardi, and the freshmen were Elise Jaeger and Gabby Lombardi. Finley McAndrew was a freshman manager.
Jeremy Mikesell was the head coach and his staff included Connor Hughes, Matt Ross, Melanie Suljic, and Shannon Wieland.