JUCO volleyball: Indian Hills makes long-awaited return

Indian Hills teammates Hennesys Lalane (left) and Jarolin de los Santos (right) leap up to attempt a block during practice at the Hellyer Student Life Center last Wednesday in Ottumwa.

OTTUMWA — There's a gleam these days when the Indian Hills volleyball team hits the hardwood.

One that head coach Lyndsey Michel isn't quite used to.

"We've never had to worry about the sun shining off the snow outside (the Hellyer Center) during practice. When it's really shining, it's tough to see in here," Michel said. "We don't play outside. It's always sunny and 75 wherever we play, but we are dealing with some things from the outside atmosphere that is affecting what we're doing in here."

Dealing with the outside atmosphere is something almost everyone has had to deal with this past year. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic created the longest offseason Michel has ever experienced as the Warrior volleyball team will finally take the floor to open a new season this Sunday in Waterloo at Hawkeye Community College.

It's been 14 months since IHCC's last match, a straight set loss to Odessa in the consolation round of the 2019 NJCAA Division I national junior college volleyball tournament. The loss closed out a breakthrough year for Michel, who guided the Warriors to a 36-5 record and the program's third-ever national tournament appearance in her eighth season at the helm.

It took 14 years for the Warriors to get back to the national tournament. Now, 14 months later, IHCC officially begins the campaign to return to nationals, being held Apr. 15-17 in West Plains, Mo.

"I think everyone is starting to come together. We're starting to connect more," IHCC sophomore Bailea Yahnke said. "Everyone finally got here, so we've finally gotten to know each other and we're starting to get into the routine of things."

The push from the fall into the winter and spring for the NJCAA volleyball season proved to be much needed for the Warriors with nine international players on the current roster. Had the season started on schedule back in late August, the Warriors would have had to open the season with several players stuck in their home countries due to travel restrictions.

"We had no idea where we'd be at right now in terms of numbers," Michel said. "We weren't sure if we'd still only have eight girls. We were sure if our girls from the Dominican Republic would be able to get here. We got Anja Vranic (younger sister of former IHCC standout Iva Vranic) here right at the start of the winter term. We're blessed to have 13 girls here on our team and have that full roster in place."

That roster includes a trio of returning sophomores in Yahnke, Cassia Lemos and Gabriela Cavalcante Oliveira. Lemos finished just 21 assists shy of setting a single-season program record for IHCC as a freshman while Oliveira has recorded 192 kills in 89 sets over 28 matches with 124 digs and 38 blocks at the net.

"We're still in a situation where keeping it simple will be our best bet, but we're simple in every position," Michel said. "We're really looking pretty clean in our execution. We've got depth. I feel pretty confident in anyone I can put out there to finish the job."

Several new faces will be on the court throughout the course of this unique season for the Warriors. Seven incoming freshmen will look to replace what the Warriors lost at the net from the graduation of nine sophomores including All-American Mariana Rodrigues, who finished with a program-record 1,090 career kills at IHCC.

"Sometimes, less is more with the rotations. The preseason was kind of messy for us because we didn't know what our depth would truly look like," Michel said. "We worked it out. I think we could have held our own with just eight players, but it's nice to have that extra depth with a full roster. We're going to travel a lot this year, even if we're playing all of the Iowa schools."

Besides home-and-away matches will all the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference programs both in Division I and II, IHCC will have home-and-away series during the regular season with both Jefferson College and Mineral Area from Missouri. The Warriors will make one tournament trip in the regular season traveling to Hutchinson Community College to play in four matches over two days.

"The hours on the bus are still going to add up," Michel said. "It would be nice as a Division I program to get out a little more on the weekends to see those stronger teams, but everyone is in the same scenario.

"The kids are ready to get off the campus. We did the quarantine, now we're here practicing and we're kind of the only ones on campus. We can finally get out of the dorm rooms and be together more as a team."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

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