Wyatt carries Rebels’ flag

G-R senior Ava Wyatt is ‘T-R Player of the Year’

T-R Player of the Year, senior Ava Wyatt pictured recently in the Gladbrook-Reinbeck Junior High/High School gym. PHOTO BY NOAH ROHLFING

A cold, wintery December afternoon in the Gladbrook-Reinbeck High School cafeteria is where Ava Wyatt sits down ready to reflect. Not just on the season that was, but on a volleyball career that spanned four years and experienced two runs to the Class 1A state title match — and included a final two years in which the senior became one of the best hitters in the state, playing all the way around and turning into one of the core leaders for a Rebel unit mixing experience and youthful talent.

From learning in the footsteps of Gladbrook-Reinbeck legend Saari Kuehl and becoming a legend in her own right, Ava Wyatt’s journey has led her to the Times-Republican Area Volleyball Player of the Year honor for 2022-23.

Wyatt was a member of the 2020 Gladbrook-Reinbeck team that made a run to the state finals and lost to Burlington-Notre Dame in four sets. It wasn’t the outcome anyone on the team wanted, but for Wyatt — a member of the starting rotation but not an all-around player at the time — it was valuable experience for the years ahead.

G-R is not a school used to volleyball success — or at least, it wasn’t until Paula Kelley became the team’s head coach. Kelley has been a part of every single state-qualifying team in the school’s history as a player in 1988 and then as a coach four of the last five seasons.

Having seen the rise of Kuehl and her stalwart senior season, the rise of Wyatt wasn’t a surprise to Kelley. Kelley said Wyatt was able to quickly adapt to her increased role as a leader.

“She learned from people above her — she asked questions, tried to copy/emulate the hitters in front of her,” Kelley said. “When it became her turn, she was able to do that for the younger kids underneath her and step aside and say, ‘hey, now do it this way or watch your steps this way.'”

Following the 2020 season, Kuehl and multiple other seniors left the team with a leadership vacuum and big shoes to fill. Megan Cooley and Wyatt were two of the players expected to fill those roles, making the leap from being situational players to playing all the way around the rotation. Such a change in playing time and playing style is a difficult adjustment to make, and it took some growing pains for both players to get comfortable.

“Playing all the way around and not getting a break is so much more mentally difficult,” Wyatt said. “You have to work to be there for your team and focus on your back row aspect and your front row aspect in order to put it all together.”

Wyatt would learn the ropes and find her way as her junior season progressed, quickly becoming an important cog in the Rebels’ attack. Her connection with setter Emma McClintock, who she had played alongside in school and club ball for years, would prove crucial in the next two seasons.

Despite a strong season in 2021, the Rebels were frustrated with how their season ended up. Making the state tournament as the No. 7 seed, they were beaten in four sets by Springville. Heading into the 2022 season, Wyatt said the focus wasn’t as much on a “revenge tour” as there was later on a season. In fact, G-R was ranked fourth at the beginning of the season and rarely strayed from the top-5. But midway through the year, the Rebels weren’t firing on all cylinders. The team was strong, but still had more to give. Four losses to North Tama added to the damper of the first half of the year.

As the second half of the season began, G-R kicked things into high gear. Wyatt said the trust in the group was made stronger and the team began to get fully on the same page in all phases. After the fourth loss to North Tama on Oct. 11, the Rebels went on a 12-game winning streak. A big part of their success was the use of Wyatt as an attacker from the back row.

“I think a big part was Emma being able to trust,” Wyatt said. “Emma knew she could set me up and I could help that out. It was a lot to learn to hit from the back row, but once we figured it out it was a good secret weapon to use that Emma could find me back there.”

Winning the Algona tournament at the end of the regular season gave G-R a boost heading into the postseason. Regionals began with the Rebels flexing their muscles against North Butler and dispatching their opponents in straight sets (part of an eight-game streak without a single set loss). Similarly convincing victories followed against Riceville and Dunkerton in the regional finals, with second-set demolitions of each opponent (25-5 v. Riceville and 25-6 against Dunkerton) paving the way for another state tournament appearance.

This is where Wyatt’s goal of a “revenge tour” came into focus — a chance for the Rebels to bounce back from disappointment and make their mark on the biggest stage once again.

In the state tournament, Wyatt made a statement early and often — taking over games and putting down spikes with quickness and efficiency. She had 24 kills in the quarterfinal victory over Holy Trinity Catholic and hit .246 during the four-set victory.

A semifinals matchup with NICL West rivals AGWSR — a team the Rebels beat three times during the regular season — brought another 22 kills from Wyatt and despite a third set in which a 9-3 G-R lead turned into a 25-20 win for AGWSR, the Rebels held on for a berth in the finals. Wyatt had 46 kills in the first two games of the state tournament, but her first set against opponents Ankeny Christian Academy in the final was a perfect example of her fully-realized potential. The senior put together 11 kills in the first set and pushed the Rebels to a convincing 25-21 win.

Kelley said the ability she showed in the state tournament was a testament to all the hard work she’s done in her career.

“It comes when it’s supposed to and it happens when it happens,” Kelley said. “I’m very happy for her that she was able to explode and shine when she did.”

After going up 2-0, the Rebels collapsed under the weight of four match points that went begging. ACA won in five sets, subjecting the G-R seniors to a second state title heartbreaker in three seasons.

It was a difficult pill to swallow in the game’s immediate aftermath, but looking back now on her senior season, Wyatt said she doesn’t have regrets.

“It’s pretty special for me to think about,” Wyatt said. “I never thought I would have this great of a career, and to be here these four years at G-R have been crazy.

“It’s sad thinking about it, we were so close to winning the final. But to make the finals twice and being on the All-Tournament team was a good experience.”

She finished the title match with 25 kills and 13 errors for a total of 71 kills in the Rebels’ state run and ended the year with a single-season school record of 480 kills — the fourth-most in Class 1A. She was a member of the All-Tournament team.

With soccer coming up in the spring and club volleyball happening in the winter, Wyatt is still staying busy as her final semester of high school draws near. Will there be another chapter in her volleyball story? Well, that part is still unclear.

At the time of writing, she said she’s felt torn about it all season long. There have been discussions and contacts with Division II and Division III-level schools and teams are interested, but there is also the option of attending college solely as a student. She’s also unsure at this point about what she wants to study in college, but with time on her side to make decisions on both fronts she’s choosing to weigh her options.

Whatever her decision, she said there’s a lot to love from her time on the court in Reinbeck.

“It’s been really special to be this successful and help grow the program a little bit,” Wyatt said. “I think a lot of the little girls from our school now want to play volleyball and want to be good just like us.

“It’ll be hard putting on a G-R jersey for the last time. It’s bittersweet, but it’s been a really great time and I wouldn’t change anything.”