Kassi and Natalie Randolph reaching for state title that oldest sister Ali won in 2014.
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Don’t let the smiles fool ya, these three can be just a little fiery – and competitive.
For more than a decade, the three daughters of Jan and Brad Randolph of Fort Madison have been patrolling the Crusaders’ side of the volleyball court at Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Fort Madison. And after all is said and done, Head Coach Melissa Freesmeier will get a full 12 years, and at least one state championship, out of the trio.
Ali Randolph, the oldest of Ali, Kassi, and Natalie, stepped onto the stage in the latter part of her freshman year. Freesmeier said she remembers that day clearly.
“I was about to put Ali into a game in Urbandale as a freshman. My setter was diabetic and her numbers were a bit high, and I said, ‘Ali, ready to go?,’ Freesmeier said.
“And Ali turned to me and said, ‘Oh yeah, my mom and dad are coming with the camper and they’ll have lunch for us’. I said, I’m not talking about lunch – I ‘m talking about you being ready to go in. And she said ‘Oh’. As a freshman she was like, I’m just here for the ride, but that changed real quick.”
Ali, who now works in real estate in the Des Moines market, was a Crusader mainstay from that point on. She played varsity from her sophomore year on, and was part of the 2014 Class 1A Championship team that included future All-American Mikaela Foecke. It was the first state title in HTC’s history.
HTC went 48-4 that year and finished with a 3-0 sweep of Central Lyon in the Class 1A state title match. Randolph led the squad in assists that year with 651. During her career, she compiled 1,500 assists, 718 digs, and 257 kills. The Crusaders made it to the state tournament in Cedar Rapids all four years of Ali’s time at HTC.
Kassi is a senior this year and made it to the state tournament her first two years. Last year, the Crusaders lost a heartbreaker 5-set match to eventual state champion Burlington Notre Dame, at HTC’s Shottenkirk Gym in the Region 8 semis, a match many consider the real state title match in 2020.
To date, Kassi has amassed an eerily similar 1,545 assists. She also has 840 digs and 660 kills in 136 matches in her four years.
Natalie is a sophomore this year and has totaled 256 assists, 185 kills, and 197 digs in 55 total matches in her two years with the program
The stats aren’t left on the table, however, as the competition also heads home to the dinner table.
Kassi and Natalie both started varsity as freshmen, an accolade they bring up ‘occasionally’ with their older sister.
“Yeah, we do actually,” Kassi said with a laugh. “And we compare stats – a lot.”
But Ali counters with she blazed the path for her sisters.
“Trust me. We pull out stats for all the years and do the averages. It’s very competitive.”
But, at the end of the day, that sisterly bond transcends volleyball assist stats and who has more kills and moves quickly to support and encouragement on and off the court.
Ali said she makes it a point to be back for the bigger matches and is never away for more than two weeks.
“If I can’t get to the game, I zoom it on my phone. Mom and Dad have that set up. I never miss a match,” she said.
Natalie and Kassi are on the court together and that has special meaning to them this year.
“We have a special connection because we’re always talking out there and we’re each other’s setters. We always know where we’re at on the court,” Kassi said. “We’re able to talk about the good and the bad and we can be extra ‘opinionated’ with each other. I think that helps.”
Freesmeier sees similarities – and differences – in all three girls.
“All three are coachable. All three do what you ask. And those are the similarities. Oh, and all three of them absolutely hate to lose,” Freesmeier said.
“But I think Natalie is the fire. Kassi is the quiet killer, and Ali’s a little bit of both. She started the Randolph tradition and it’s continued. When you have little sisters, it seems as if they just follow in your footsteps and it’s been great seeing them grow up. They’ve all three been awesome to coach.”
Assistant Coach Tom Gendron, who’s been with Freesmeier for more than 15 years and has been part of the process with all the girls, said Natalie is a unique creation that’s born out of the skill sets of the other two.
“When you look at Natalie, you see the byproduct. Ali had a huge arm swing that Natalie has. And Ali had a good touch and was a really good setter, but she didn’t have the touch that Kassi has. And then Natalie comes in with that touch of Kassi. If you take Kassi and Ali and combine them and then turn them left-handed – you have Natalie,” he said.
With Ali starting the Randolph Crusader legacy eight years ago, Kassi and Natalie had the advantage of watching their sister be successful, up to and including, the state title. Natalie said she was following all that from a much younger age than her sisters.
“I started really young. I grew up with volleyball in my family watching Ali and then Kassi. So I was always at a volleyball game and I helped play on some of their teams when they were older, too.”
Kassi said they really started playing when they were in second or third grade because Ali was already involved, so they would practice as a family at home.
That bond has been beneficial on the court for the Crusaders.
“I always have the support from my sisters. It’s nice to watch them grow up and then I get to follow in their footsteps,” Natalie said. They help me after games and call me. Ali is there to watch and she’ll call me and tell me what I need to work on, and Kassi is right there to help me on the floor.”
But Ali said she thinks Natalie has had the tougher road.
“I would say it’s tougher on her. She gets a lot of what I would call ‘positive criticism’,” Ali said. “I just got it from my parents, and these two chimed in once in a while. But having two older sisters that are a little more experienced – she definitely hears a lot.”
Kassi benefits from both Ali’s experience and Natalie’s efficiency on the floor.
“Obviously, I get a lot of feedback because Ali was there, and then I pass that on to Natalie. Then I can use that to get two different perspectives. I use that as an advantage and it’s a big part of my game,” Kassi said.
Brad and Jan were both athletes in high school. Jan played tennis and was a cheerleader, while Brad played collegiate soccer at Illinois Wesleyan. Ali said sports has always been a priority in their family with all three girls playing soccer, basketball, and volleyball – most of the time with their parents serving as coach in some capacity.
“My parents put all three of us in Y volleyball and one of the two were usually our coach,” Ali said. “Sports was a really big thing in our family. They pushed us. Mom and Dad are just extremely competitive and that rubbed off on us and made us really want to do well.”
The Class 1A No. 5 Crusaders start their quest to get back to the state tournament on Oct. 19 in Region 7 play. This year, Burlington Notre Dame drew a different regional and, if and when, the two meet again, it will be in Cedar Rapids at the state tournament.
Natalie said winning is important to her individually, but also in the sphere of the Randolph family, because she wants to help Kassi get a state title before she graduates.
“It’s both,” Natalie said. “We saw Ali win a championship so I made that my goal to do that. Now we want it really bad, especially missing it last year. So we come in and focus each day on those goals. We want to get it done.”
Ali said she tries not to push too hard for her sisters to win the championship.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on them. But it was my favorite experience of, maybe my life, but high school for sure. It was such a fun time and I want that for them. Natalie didn’t get to state her freshman year so I really want her to experience that,” Ali said.
“I just think they know what they are capable of as a team and they’re having fun doing it. You can tell if the energy is high, they play so much better. So I tell them both, just remember what you’re capable of doing and keep your goals high.”