It’s probably not a coincidence that the first West Branch team to qualify for the state volleyball tournament contains two Poula sisters. Granted, a strong, experienced senior class led this team, but there’s a certain birthright involved for Heather and Haley Poula after their mother, in particular, and various other relatives starred for West Branch a generation ago.
Lynnette Poula, the girls’ mother, was a college all-American in softball after a star-studded high school career, has coached and served as the school’s athletic director. Participation in sports from an early age was a given.
“I think it was just a way of life,” Lynnette said. “I was head softball coach here at West Branch when they were both born.Softball was my first love, so I really started them with softball. In establishing an ASA program in West Branch, I pretty much used Heather right off the bat.”
Heather Poula now is a senior, a multi-sport participant, sure to be an all-state selection in volleyball this fall who earned a spot on the senior all-star roster. She recently was named the Iowa winner of the Wendy’s High School Heisman competition for students who excel in athletics, academics and in serving their community. If you were going to pick a kid to be ground zero in establishing an athletic endeavor, she would be it.
Lynnette also coached club and junior high volleyball and encouraged the girls to take up the sport. She and her husband, Mitch, knew they wanted to keep their children active. Lynnette also wanted them to stay with activities in which they’d shown promise, but not for the reasons you might think.
“If they were decent at it, I knew they would help a team and I knew the importance of being part of a team,” Lynnette said. “It’s going to strengthen the kids in life in general.”
“We started competing at an early age,” Heather said. “Tug-of-war over clothes and racing out to the car to get the front seat. We just knew sports were our thing after that.”
Lynnette coached them in junior high, and Heather said she appreciated the push her mother provided. Her daughters had to be on their toes because she often used them as examples at practice.
The Poula sisters are different, of course, and not just in height and age.
Heather is described as shy, which is not the word you’d use if you saw her play. She is a natural leader yet disdains the limelight, with a passion. Even in a sport that celebrates every single point like it’s World Series Game 7, Heather reserves her emotion. Haley is empathetic and team-oriented. She’s the big kid with the big heart. Both are hard workers
Volleyball is the sport that won over the girls, although they participate in other sports.
“You get to work with your team and be with them and just help them,” Haley said.
“I’ve never been an aggressive player,” Heather said. “So being on the opposite side of the court as the other team is definitely a plus.”
“That was kind of hard for me because softball is my favorite and probably their least favorite,” Lynnette confessed.
For Haley, a freshman, the sport is a natural with her height. For Heather, volleyball was her first school sport in which she had success personally and with the team. Another factor was the year-round availability of club volleyball, and Heather’s and Haley’s respective classes have strong volleyball players and have been successful.
It’s also the only sport in which the girls share a position. In basketball, Heather is a guard and Haley a post. Haley is pitcher in softball, and Heather is an outfielder. In track, Haley is a thrower, and Heather is a runner.
In volleyball, they are listed as middles but are essentially front-row players who can block and put away kills with authority. Heather is one of the best all-around players in the state. She is second on the team in assists and first in kills. She never leaves the floor, while Haley plays the front and serves.
The two have shared a season as varsity players, but the journey was not without bumps.
“It was a rough start to begin with,” Lynnette said. “Heather finding the way to include Haley as a teammate instead of her little sister. And it was tough for Haley because these were all Heather’s friends and her friends weren’t there. She was the only freshman on the team.
“But then I’d see they were talking volleyball, which was nice to see because they fight all the time at home. They came home one day in Heather’s car from practice, and they were chit-chatting and I was invisible to them. They were so involved in their conversation of volleyball. I heard Heather say, ‘I think you’re going to make the varsity team, Haley.’ Haley’s eyes lit up. I see going from the sister to the teammate on the floor.”
Heather, as the oldest, with a team full of classmates who had been together since they were little girls, arguably had the most at stake in having little sister crash the club.
“I knew coming into this season it would be my best or my worst year with high school volleyball,” Heather said with a straight face. “Once I saw what Haley could do on the floor, she definitely deserved her spot.”
“At first, I was scared, but it’s a lot of fun,” Haley said. “I’ve been with everybody my whole life because of (Heather).”
Haley said the experience has helped her progress more quickly.
“If I’m ever down, she’ll tell me what to do, and she’s not afraid to make me mad,” Haley said. “When everybody else is like, ‘Nice work,’ she’ll push me really hard. She knows what I’m capable of.”
Of course mom can tell when it’s not all sweetness and light on the floor.
“They will have their little arguments on the floor like if a set goes bad and Heather is setting to Haley and Haley misses it,” Lynnette said. “I can so see them fighting with each other and glaring. One night I came home and I said, ‘Hales, you’re showing an awful lot of emotion on the court.’ She said, ‘Yeah, but Heather gets so mad at me.'”
Lynnette offered to mediate but Haley declined.
“No,” Lynnette recalled Haley saying firmly. “What Heather and I do on the court is OK. Heather can yell at me; I can yell at her. It works good, mom.'”
As teammates, they’ve found a way to work and communicate and appreciate the experience.
“My first year of varsity, I get to play with my sister, and not only that we get to go to state,” Haley said. “It’s amazing. It’s like more than I ever could imagine.”
But then again…
“At home, oh yeah, it all comes back out,” Lynnette said. “But they’ve become closer.”
And Haley understands what her older sister has meant not just to the family and the school but to the community.
“She’s a role model for me,” Haley said. “Good at sports and good at school and just good all-around.”
It’s an ongoing generational thing apparently.