Minnesota Emerges as Volleyball Hotbed

Hugh McCutcheon, head coach of the University of Minnesota Gophers.

And the center of the U.S. girls and women’s volleyball is ...

You might first think of California. It wouldn’t be illogical to say Texas.

Others could make an argument for the Ohio/Indiana/Kentucky area.

How about Minnesota?

Since you haven’t thought about it, think about this:

The defending NCAA Division III national champion? The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

The six-time – six-time! – defending NCAA Division II national champion? Concordia University, also of St. Paul, Minn.

In last year’s NCAA Division I tournament, the University of Minnesota lost in four to Penn State for the right to the final four.

And just think about the clubs: Northern Lights, M1, and Minnesota Select, to name some of the biggest. For that matter, USAV North Country region commissioner Judy Praska estimates there are 15,000 girls’ volleyball players in her region.

“Minnesota is truly a hotbed for volleyball. Kids love playing the sport,” said Praska, whose region also includes sparsely populated North Dakota, South Dakota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” Northern Lights club director Adam Beamer said. “When I first started here it was pretty bad.

“There was volleyball, but it was really inexperienced volleyball. No one really traveled and no one did a whole lot. I think the big growth started when the high school league changed the rule and said that kids could play club ball in the offseason. That was back in the early 1980s.”

Fast forward two decades to last November, when St. Thomas found itself down 0-2 in the national-title match to Calvin, and a week later, Concordia was in the same situation against Tampa.

Then both teams – rooting for each other from afar – made huge comebacks.

On November 17 in Holland, Mich., the Tommies lost 25-13, 25-17, letting everyone there think that Calvin was going to win in three. But after winning the next three games 25-18, 25-16 and then 15-9, St. Thomas won its 35th match in a row to finish 40-1 and became the first team from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to win the national volleyball title.

“It was awesome,” said Concordia coach Brady Starkey. “We were fired up for them.”

A week later, in Pensacola, Fla., Concordia, playing in its seventh consecutive NCAA title match, went down 29-27 and 25-17.

“They came into the huddle and I was like, ‘Sweet, you got ‘em right where you want ‘em. It’s going to feel really good when we come back and win this match,’ and none of them acted like I was joking,” Starkey said.

And Concordia bounced back with 25-23, 25-23, 16-14 victories to finish 33-4 and put itself in the record book. Concordia tied the NCAA record (all divisions) in the sport of volleyball for consecutive national championships, joining Washington-St. Louis (1991-96) at the Division III level. Concordia's six total titles stand alone at the Division II level.

“They won it in the same fashion. We were very pumped for them,” St. Thomas coach Thanh Pham said.

You probably figured by now that the coaching staffs at Concordia and St. Thomas have some strong friendships and many volleyball ties. Pham and Starkey have coached club together. And those friendships transcend to the players. To begin with, the respective rosters are comprised primarily of Minnesota players.

Concordia lists 11 players from Minnesota and two from Wisconsin.

St. Thomas lists 23 players on its roster, with only six from out of state, three from Iowa, two from Nebraska, and one from Wisconsin.

There are six players on the current University of Minnesota roster from the state. But others range from California to Puerto Rico to Iowa to Italy to Australia.

“There’s only one D-I school here and that’s the University of Minnesota, and so the kids who aren’t good enough to play there want to stay close to home,” Northern Lights’ Beamer said. “So they’re going to Concordia or St. Thomas.”

For the record, his daughter, Samantha Seliger-Swenson, doesn’t have that problem. She’s a junior and has already committed to Minnesota.

Concordia’s Starkey, 339-30 in 11 seasons, agreed that his state is producing plenty of talented players.

“We’ve been lucky with the kids we’ve been able to bring in here,” Starkey said. “We get to know what these kids are really like because of the connections we have in the club world here. In the metro here we get to see them play, too.”

Obviously they’ve been signing the right players, as well.

“It’s been a good run,” Starkey said. “It’s been fun.”

This year he has to replace four starters “but we’ve had some talented kids who have been waiting in the wings,” Starkey said. Nonetheless, behind All-Americans Kayla Koenecke and Amanda Konetchy, Concordia is the preseason No. 1, getting 43 of 48 first-place votes in the AVCA Division II poll.

Accordingly, St. Thomas, led by senior setter Katie Maher, got 47 of 48 first-place votes to top the Division III poll. Pham, who like Starkey has coached club in the area, enters his 11th year at St. Thomas.

“Bouncing ideas off of him has helped us get to the next level,” Pham said.

Now the key is staying at the top level, which is probably expected these days in Minnesota, where there are more outstanding players on the way.

“The North Country region has the most players,” Pham said. “And if you have the most players, there is going to be a lot of talent. The best thing for our program has been the University of Minnesota being so good. They do recruit from Minnesota, but to go there you have to be so elite because they recruit nationally.

“So then those kid who might have gone to the U 10 years ago are now going to Concordia. And those kids who went Concordia are now coming to us. So there’s a big trickle-down effect in terms of the recruiting. There’s just so much talent in the state of Minnesota and when they do come to college they are very prepared to play.”

All of which is music to the ears of Praska, the North Country commissioner.

“At North Country, our slogan is ‘Volleyball for life,’” Praska said. “I think the kids in our region have taken that to heart, literally. They play in grade school, high school, and they go to college and continue playing. It’s volleyball for life.”

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