Aspiring young volleyball players in the Omaha metro area with the desire — and money — to test themselves against top-flight competition have the avenues to do so.
Then there’s Clarinda High School’s Lauren Bair, who actually lives a mile east of College Springs, Iowa. (Search for that on your Maps app.) Depending on where her Omaha-area club teams practiced through the years, it was at minimum an hour and 15 minutes each way, sometimes more than an hour and a half.
During the winter and spring club season, that’s a minimum of two-and-a-half hours of driving, two to three times a week, occasionally four. She’s done it for the last six years.
That’s the price Bair has been willing to pay to excel in her favorite sport. The 5-foot-10 senior led Iowa’s Class 3-A and the powerful Hawkeye Ten Conference in kill efficiency last year (.452). This year for 10-3 Clarinda, Bair is averaging 3.28 kills per set with a .273 efficiency. A versatile player, she also leads the team in aces (15) and digs (79).
Bair said the miles have become tougher as she’s grown older and her classes have become more difficult.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so tired of this, of the drive. I have homework to do when I get home, and I try to do it in the car. Is it worth it?’ ’’ she said.
But when she analyzes all of her experiences and relationships through her four different clubs, she knows the answer.
“Oh yeah, for sure,’’ she said. “It’s all worth it in the end. I’ve met so many great people throughout the Omaha area and Iowa. I have so many friends scattered all over that I’ve met through volleyball.’’
Bair is the youngest of Randy and Valerie Bair’s three daughters. Jenny is a senior at Midland who ranks second in kills for the No. 4 NAIA team in the nation. Rachael also was a standout at Clarinda, graduating in 2016.
Growing up, they had a volleyball net in the front yard of their farm.
“We would go out and play, just the three of us,’’ Lauren Bair said. “It was usually Rachael and I against Jenny.’’
When Jenny was old enough to start playing club ball, Rachael and Lauren could usually be found near the court during tournaments, peppering around with a ball.
Lauren Bair is in her second year as the unquestioned go-to player for the Cardinals. She also is playing for her third coach. Will Baumann, who led Tripoli to five straight Class 1-A state titles from 2008 to 2012 and added a sixth in 3-A at Nevada in 2015, has taken the reins. Only three coaches in Iowa history have won more state championships.
Baumann said Bair’s unselfishness has eased the transition.
“She’s pretty humble, and she’s about team first,’’ he said. “Any kid that’s about the team is going to make things a little easier. She’s very athletic and she has a pretty high skill set in terms of volleyball. She’s very game-savvy.’’
On Tuesday, Clarinda swept Denison-Schleswig and played 3-A state No. 1 Carroll Kuemper tough in two of the three sets, losing 25-9, 25-22, 25-23.
The Cardinals have two other dangerous hitters in sisters Madi Lihs, a 5-11 senior, and 6-0 sophomore Morgan Lihs. Junior Taylor Wedemeyer (5-7) is one of the area’s top setters.
Baumann said the Cardinals are handling all of the changes well.
“They’re taking this in stride,’’ he said. “Like most greedy coaches you want it to happen faster, always, but they are doing a tremendous job with adapting this and making our mindset as strong as our skill set.’’
A 3.6 student who also plays basketball and runs track, Bair isn’t sure yet if she will continue her volleyball career in college. She does know that she’s going to pour everything into her final year of high school volleyball and is excited to help her team reach its potential.
She has already made a strong impression with her new coach, on and off the court.
“She’s a better kid than she is player,’’ Baumann said.