Riding a nine-game winning streak entering the state volleyball tournament, it would be easy to say that the Minneota Vikings are peaking at the right time. Easy, but wrong.
In reality, the Vikings, who picked up their fourth consecutive Section 3A championship with a 3-0 win over Russell-Tyler-Ruthton on Saturday, have been peaking all year, starting with a strong showing at the Southwest Minnesota Challenge in Marshall in early September.
Minneota went 3-2 at the tournament, with the two losses were to Class AAA programs during the championship round. The seventh-place finish showed the coaching staff that the team was ready to move on in the absence of graduated five-year starter Kelsey Hennen.
Independent file photo
Minneota’s Taylor Reiss (9), Faith Laleman (3)?and Megan Larson react after winning a point in the Section 3A title match against Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Saturday at the R/A Facility.
"I think we had concerns going into the Southwest Challenge because we didn't know where we were at," Vikings head coach Steph Hennen said. "We got down there and I thought we had a nice showing. I think at that time of the season, it was better than we thought. We were very pleased with how we did there and how quickly the team came together."
The Vikings have used the momentum from the seventh-place finish to compile a 29-3 overall record thus far, including going 19-1 over their last 20 contests. During those games, Minneota has dropped just six sets. Though Minneota lost libero Kelsey Hennen to graduation, it has used defense by committee to set up its high-powered offense.
"Our passing has been good all season," Hennen said. "We're getting the ball up enough so that Megan (Larson) can put it wherever we need her to put it so our hitters can go up there and swing. I think Megan has done an outstanding job of putting the ball where our hitters want it, and I think our hitters have done a great job of going up and putting the ball away."
Larson has tallied 881 set assists in all contests leading up to the state tournament, while middle hitter Taylor Reiss and outside hitter Molly Hennen have been the primary beneficiaries of her outstanding season so far.
"Megan has been doing a great job of getting the balls to where they need to be, and we've been doing a good job of putting the ball away," Reiss said.
For Molly Hennen, the key has been just enjoying the game as a team.
"After we got into the routine during the first couple of games, we started coming together and playing together more as a team," Hennen said. "We were talking more and having more fun on the court. We've started taking it more seriously over the last couple weeks because we know that state is a big deal. I think some of our seniors have stepped up, like Hanna (Prellwitz) and Faith (Laleman). After losing Kelsey, my sister, as libero, we were kind of nervous. We lost a lot of good leadership, but Faith and Hanna really pulled the team together."
Reiss, a sophomore and All-Tournament selection in 2011 as a freshman, has knocked down 461 kills to lead the Vikings, while Hennen has 282 kills. Shelby Corbin (157 kills) and Prellwitz (107 kills) have also powered the Vikings to victory during the season. Molly Hennen leads the Vikings in digs, with 252, while Corbin, Larson, and Reiss all have over 240 digs.
Thursday, the Vikings will open up their ninth overall state tournament appearance against a school making its debut at the Xcel Energy Center.
North Woods High School, in Cook, captured the Section 7A title to punch its ticket to St. Paul. With a 23-3 overall record, the Grizzlies have also had an inspired season.
Running a 6-2 offense, North Woods was led offensively by the combined 605 set assists from Destinie Vilebrun and Tessa Mankus. Vilebrun also has 292 kills, while middle hitter Darby Youngstrom has a team-high 307.
The Vikings, who received the second seed in the tournament, will need to contain Youngstrom and Vilebrun if they hope to improve on their back-to-back third-place finishes. Minneota, however, should have the edge in experience, seeing as how almost every member on this team took part in last year's tournament.
"I'm kind of nervous because I've never seen them play before," Molly Hennen said, "But I'm also really excited because I love going to state. It's the most fun part of the volleyball season. I'm sure it will be a great game."
For Reiss, Thursday's 3 p.m. start time cannot get here fast enough.
"I think I'm getting more anxious for the tournament to begin,"?she said. "I just want my team to go down there and give it all we've got."
Despite an admission to jitters from two of her top players, Steph Hennen is confident that her team wont be too distracted by the stage.
"I think that they won't be as nervous and awestruck," she said. "They've played there before, a lot of them, and they're very excited. They're anxious just to get down there, and I'm anxious for us to get down there and see what we can do. I've been very fortunate to work with a great group of kids this year."