TIPTON, Iowa — During a track and field meet in Tipton last spring, Sommer Daniel was coming around the curve on the backstretch of the 400 meters and heard a little girl yell outside the fence.

“Mom look, there goes the Ute,” the girl shouted.

Daniel, not enthusiastic about running, flashed a smile in mid-stride hearing those words. The Tipton senior is a Utah volleyball recruit and the school’s nickname is Utes.

“I had no idea who it was, but it made me feel pretty good I can make an impact on the sport, make an impact on younger girls that want to play and they knew me outside of volleyball,” Daniel said. “It reminds you young kids watch everything you do.”

Daniel’s storybook high school volleyball career hits the finish line this fall — and what a journey it has been for the 5-foot-9 setter and outside hitter.

A four-year starter, Daniel has directed Tipton to 96 wins, a River Valley Conference championship, two state tournament appearances and a runner-up finish in Class 3A last November.

The reigning 3A player of the year has accumulated 1,375 assists, amassed 1,229 kills and recorded 858 digs. Nobody in Iowa, regardless of classification, has eclipsed 1,000 in all three categories in at least a decade.

“I have never seen a player like Sommer anywhere I’ve been,” Tipton coach Amy Calonder said. “She makes people around her better. She knows the game, sees the court so well and understands what is going on at all times on both sides of the net.”

Daniel and volleyball have been a match since she was 6 or 7 years old. Her mother, Vicki, played in high school. Her aunt competed in college.

“I tell many people I knew ever since I was 8 years old that I wanted to play college volleyball,” Daniel said. "I loved it immediately."

There have been challenges along the way. She had to skip out on social opportunities with friends, particularly between eighth and 10th grades, because she was immersed with volleyball.

“It is a hot time for recruiting, and (volleyball) consumed her, almost to a fault,” Vicki said. “There is pressure at such a young age and you do the best to maintain that balance, but it was this constant thought of where am I going to go to school? It is a pretty intimidating process.”

Daniel is in a better place now.

“She has a good balance between her love for volleyball and life outside of it,” Vicki said. “We’ve encouraged her and told her at some point volleyball will end. She sees that.”

As Daniel progressed through elementary and middle school, Calonder knew an extraordinary talent was making her way into Tipton's program.

She hasn't disappointed.

Tipton has won 25, 32 and 39 matches, respectively, the past three seasons.

Daniel has done it in all facets -- hitting, setting, digging and serving. She has unleashed 137 career aces to go with her gaudy kills, assist and dig totals.

“You knew there was definitely something there,” Calonder said. 

Daniel possesses that "it" factor. Her savvy court awareness, coupled with her athletic ability and knowledge of the game, leaves those in awe.

“Sometimes during a match, I’ll just be like, ‘Oh my gosh, how did she do that, or how did she see that was open?’” Calonder said. “She’s just fun to watch.”

Daniel calls it a sixth sense. Nobody is certain where she acquired it.

“She was blessed, a gift from God,” Vicki said. “She has a unique ability coupled with her passion."

Daniel is the oldest of three children. Vicki said her daughter is almost like a second mom at home.

With her parents working long hours, Daniel is responsible for getting her brothers up in the morning, getting their lunches prepared, taking them to school and often does the grocery shopping.

“She’s about as mature of a 17-year-old as you’ll find,” Vicki said.

That spills over to the volleyball court.

The quarterback of Tipton’s offense, Daniel serves as a coach on the court. She has taken junior Alex Hoffman, the other setter in Tipton’s 6-2 offense, under her wing this summer and fall. Daniel has studied film with Hoffman to help enhance her volleyball IQ.

“I worked really hard when I was younger to be a leader,” Daniel said. “For some reason, I’m that spark on the floor and the girls respond well to me. It feels good to be that person girls can lean on if they need somebody.”

Cockiness? No. Just an abundance of confidence.

“Often times, you see that level of confidence in athletes of that caliber," Calonder said. "She has it."

Spectators see the fiery and intense Daniel on the court, one who isn’t afraid to get emotional or question a call with an official.

Her personality away from the gym is quite opposite.

“She’s a very compassionate kid,” Vicki said.

Several years ago, Daniel and her mom were in a Tipton grocery store and a mentally disabled couple in front of them struggled to pay for an item. Vicki stepped in and offered to cover the rest of the bill.

When they walked out of the store and into their car, the situation broke Daniel’s heart. She felt they should give the couple some additional money. They drove up to them and handed them $20.

“As we drove away, Sommer said, ‘I know what I want to do when I grow up. I want to play professional volleyball and give back,'" Vicki recalled.

“She has always had such a huge heart. She’s very competitive and intense on the floor, and she can push the limits, but she has a very big heart that a lot of people don’t get to see.”

Daniel, who played with the Iowa Rockets club team for numerous years before transitioning to Adrenaline Volleyball Academy last year, took numerous college visits. Northern Iowa and several California schools were in the mix.

Nothing could match her experience at Utah, a Pac-12 program.

“The girls are amazing, the coaches are amazing and the program is really competitive,” Daniel said. “One of the biggest things I was looking for was the business side of we’re here to compete, we’re here to win, but also the family side we’re a team and we’re friends. That’s how I felt when I went out there.”

Daniel plans to graduate in December and get a head start on her collegiate career, which includes a beach season in the spring and indoor in the fall. She’ll begin classes in Salt Lake City in early January.

She has rotated between hitting and setting in high school. The thought is for Daniel to set in college.

“My goal is to go in there and start as a freshman,” Daniel said. "Whatever I need to do to be on the court, I will do."

First, she has some unfinished business at Tipton.

The Tigers, off a school-record 39 victories last season, fell one victory short of the school’s first state championship. Despite graduating four starters, they are reloading around Daniel. 

“We have a checklist of goals and there is one box not checked off,” Daniel said. “That’s a state championship, our plan and our goal.

“This group is all on the same page. We’re capable of getting there.”

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Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.