CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Since Iowa first held a state volleyball championship in 1970, the sport has undergone through drastic changes.
Today’s game is scored differently. It’s played at an unfathomable speed with players who can jump to obscene heights.
But, at least as far as Iowa volleyball is concerned, there has been one constant connecting the first generation of teams to the latest:
Wahlert wins championships.
Aliyah Carter capped her sensational run through the state tournament with a match-high 27 kills in the final match and the fourth-seeded Golden Eagles defeated No. 2 Cedar Rapids Xavier, 25-20, 25-19, 14-25 and 25-14, Friday at the U.S. Cellular Center in the 2018 Class 4A state championship match. In the process, Wahlert won its third title in a row, a milestone 20th overall as a program, accentuating its state record for championships.
More often than not, when Wahlert is in the mix at the state tournament, Wahlert wins championships. Through 33 tournament appearances as a program, the Eagles have been the top team in their class more than half of the time. Before Friday’s match, Wahlert already was the only team to win multiple volleyball championships in every decade since Iowa first sanctioned the sport.
The Eagles are now the only Iowa team to string together three or more consecutive title-winning seasons on four separate occasions.
“You’re definitely proud of the tradition,” said coach Lindsey Beaves, a former Wahlert setter. The last time the Eagles strung together this many championships, from 2000-05, Beaves was in on the run as a player. “The name on your jersey means something a whole lot greater than you. You’re in a club full of women across the country who have experienced this and they support you. We get messages from people during this time of year that support us and want us to do well and it’s an incredible feeling.
“You think about it and it’s kind of overwhelming to think about --- the people who came before you and built this program. And when we weren’t as strong, the kids who grinded it out and brought it back, who still support you to this day. It’s pretty amazing.”
Beaves has coached all three of Wahlert’s recent titles, with this year’s run serving as perhaps the most impressive in her tenure. In 2016, Eagles all-American phenom Mackenzie May simply wouldn’t be denied a title. Last season, Carter joined a senior-heavy Wahlert team that leaned on the prior year’s championship experience.
This year, Beaves admitted she didn’t know what to expect. The Eagles graduated more than half of their starting lineup from the 2017 championship team. For a three-peat, Wahlert needed a player who could put forth a historic effort.
Carter answered that call. She finished with 82 kills through three state tournament matches and was named 4A all-tournament team captain for the second year in a row. After the way she handled the Saints, the captain’s recognition was a foregone conclusion.
“It’s just all the energy coming from the team, the stands, the parents --- all the energy just comes toward our court,” Carter said. “It’s incredible. We’re so blessed that we get the opportunity to come here and (get) the 20th (championship).”
Beaves added: “She did a little bit of everything. She was tough behind the service line. She was taking big swings in big moments. … They came together as a group and everyone did their job.”
Aside from Beaves, the only remnant from Wahlert’s 2016 title was senior middle Carolyn Conlon. She had 13 kills in the final match of her prep career, joined Carter on the all-tournament team, and can now call herself a three-time champion.
“It started in grade school --- I played volleyball and I also went to Wahlert volleyball games,” Conlon said. “When I got to high school, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. … Everyone had a very fun season. It’s a great group, we’re very close, and that makes it way more fun.”
As with last year’s championship match, in which she set the 4A tournament record with 34 kills, it was clear from the opening points that Carter was going to be featured in all six spots of the rotation. She had eight kills through Set 1, four of them coming out of the back row. Back-to-back Carter putdowns lifted the Eagles to set point, 24-19, and Conlon clinched the opener two plays later with a kill.
Carter then killed four of Wahlert’s first five points to open Set 2. With a 5-3 lead, the Eagles never again trailed. She had two more back row kills as part of a 6-1 Wahlert run for a 19-12 lead, and put down two straight to end the set, giving the Eagles a 2-0 lead in the match.
“In prior matches we’ve been able to slow (Carter) down a little bit more,” said Xavier coach Austin Filer. “But she was just phenomenal today.”
The Saints appeared to have figured Wahlert out in the third set, taking the lead for good on a tip-kill from Olivia Richard, 5-4. They pushed that lead to 18-11. After the Eagles cut their deficit to 19-14, Xavier closed out Set 3 with six straight points to avoid the sweep.
Xavier and Wahlert battled to a 4-4 tie to open Set 4 when another Carter kill sided out for the Eagles and put her back to the service line. She then served the next six points, including an ace, for a 10-6 Wahlert lead forcing Filer to burn both of his timeouts.
The Eagles never let the Saints within four after that. Carter’s kill sparked a four-point Wahlert spurt for an 18-10 lead. Her back row kill pushed the Eagles to match point, 24-13. The Saints sided out, but missed their ensuing serve to hand the title to Wahlert.
Xavier’s Akeela Jefferson and Eve Magill joined the all-tournament team alongside Carter, Conlon, Independence’s Madison Larson, Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s Kenzie Foley and Dallas Center-Grimes’ Katelyn Knudsen.
The Eagles will host a championship reception at noon today in the Wahlert gym.