Standout career
nears end

4-year impact player Athman leads Storm into playoffs

BY Tom Fenton

Dave Hiedeman said he gets chills every time he sees a volleyball zoom off the right hand of Ava Athman and hit the floor.

That is a lot of goose bumps, which is understandable considering Hiedeman is not only an assistant coach for Sauk Rapids-Rice volleyball team but also Athman’s grandfather.

“It’s a complete feeling of pride watching Ava out there knowing what she’s come from and what she’s done,” said Hiedeman, who has been with the Storm program for 22 seasons. “I want her to do well as her grandpa, but I want her to do well even more as a teammate and member of the program. It’s fun to watch her excel the way she has, and I’m so proud of all the hard work she’s put in.”

The culmination of Athman’s standout four-year career with the Storm is approaching as her final playoff run begins Saturday, Oct. 28. The No. 6-seeded Storm will take on No. 3 Sartell at 6 p.m. at Sartell High School in Sartell. SRR finished the season 15-9, including a pair of 3-1 loss to the Sabres, who finished 22-5.

Though legacy may be a strong term, the impression Athman will leave on the program is undebatable.

Athman, a Bemidji State University commit, enters the Section 8AAAA tournament with 727 career kills and a .225 attack percentage, including an eye-opening .390 mark as a senior. She also carries a .880 serve percentage, including .940 this season with 59 aces, to go along with 450 digs, 26 solo blocks and 137 block assists.

“I’m just grateful for everything and the support I’ve been given,” Athman said. “I’m happy with what I’ve done.”

Athman first started bumping around the volleyball as a young child in the yard with Hiedeman. Her first taste of organized volleyball came in the community education’s Storm Spikers program as a second grader. She recalls being instantly intrigued, a fascination that quickly grew and has yet to stop.

“I just love the fast-paced tempo of the game,” Athman said. “What kept me interested as a second-grader was how fast it was. There are also so many areas you can develop in. You’re not limited to just one skill. You never get bored because you can do a lot of things within the sport. That’s what keeps me passionate.”

Athman honed her skills in club volleyball with the SRR program until moving on to the Maple Grove-based Minnesota Select team the past two years. She started with the high school varsity as a freshman when asked to try the middle hitter, which at the time she had never done.

Making that transition came as no surprise to Hiedeman, who saw something special in his granddaughter early on.

“About fifth or sixth grade, I remember making a comment to her parents that this kid can be something special,” Hiedeman said. “She’s got the work ethic, talent and drive. She was just different that most kids at that age level. She’s worked with trainers to jump higher and private coaches to improve swing and hitting. She’s always had that internal drive to be better.”

The middle hitter position grew on Athman as she started seeing regular playing time with the Storm varsity team. She was a regular as a sophomore and was one of the key players on SRR’s appearance in the 2021 Minnesota State High School League Class AAA Girls Volleyball State Tournament — a level the program had been only once.

Her versatility and durability have been key factors as she attacked, blocked and dug her way to huge overall statistics, which coach Gail Bialke said take a back seat to team success.

“She is an all-around player, and she doesn’t come off the court — ever,” Bialke said. “She can do it all. She is the humblest player I know and is more concerned about how we will beat a team or stop a particular player than what her stats are. … I’m going to miss her as a player, but also as someone I can relate to as a person who loves the game as much as I do.”

Athman amassed 333 kills this season, topping her junior-year total by more than 100 as she became more of an offensive focal point. She accomplished this while getting ahead on college credits as a full-time post-secondary student at St. Cloud State University.

She said committing to the game outside of practice with nutrition, lifting and conditioning along with a drive to always improve have been key factors in her success.

“It comes down to playing at a competitive club and playing with girls who are better than you (to be your best),” Athman said. “You can’t get complacent with where you’re at. It’s very important to play with girls who will challenge you.”

Athman thrives on being a leader while admitting she is more of a lead-by-example captain than a vocal one, preferring to focus on one-on-one relationships with her teammates to help keep them involved and confident.

“Ava is not a yah-rah-rah player or cheerleader type,” Bialke said. “She is an intense player who wants the whole team to do well. She would rather win the match and only have five kills than to lose the match and have 20 kills.

Unfortunately, there are not many players like her who put the team first like she does.”

This year’s 15 wins are the most the SRR program has had since 2018, when it finished 19-10. While an extended playoff run would help cap an impressive career, Athman’s accomplishments will not be diminished if it does not happen. Neither will the memories.

“It’s been a really fun four years, and I’ve gotten to see it all in that time,” Athman said. “For sure, the highlight was winning the section championship (in 2021). That was a dream of mine, and I was glad to have made it a reality. I still replay that last point and all the emotion that went with it.”