Eagan, Farmington finish 3rd, 4th in state tournament
Sixteen teams recently put on a show at the state high school boys volleyball tournament – not only for the spectators in attendance and watching online but, organizers hope, for members of the Minnesota State High School League’s Representative Assembly.
After its first season as a club sport in 2018, boys volleyball now has a back-to-back state champion in Andover, which defeated Eden Prairie in four sets in the finals June 17 at Shakopee High School. Andover also won the sport’s first state tourney in 2019; the 2020 season was not held because of the pandemic.
“That championship match between Andover and Eden Prairie was exciting,” said Eagan coach Kelly Schlagel, whose team finished third in the state tournament. “The players were athletic, they played at a high level, and the skill is only going to improve.”
In May, a proposal to sanction boys volleyball as an official Minnesota State High School League sport narrowly failed to pass the Representative Assembly, which is responsible for changing MSHSL bylaws. Twenty-nine of the 47 members who voted were in favor, but that fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority required for approval.
Boys volleyball is likely to be on the agenda again at the Representative Assembly’s next meeting in spring 2022. Until then, organizers of the Minnesota Boys High School Volleyball Association need to demonstrate that their sport has recovered from the pandemic and can show growth potential.
About 40 schools had club teams this season. Schlagel said that number was closer to 60 last season before the pandemic shut down youth and high school athletics. A number of sports saw participation numbers drop this year, but boys volleyball organizers believe their sport’s numbers will rebound.
Schlagel is junior varsity head coach in the Eagan High School girls program. The Wildcat varsity has reached the Class 3A championship match at the last seven state tournaments held at the Xcel Energy Center. Attendance for all three classes at the girls volleyball tournament has exceeded 20,000 for six years in a row.
Boys volleyball might not be able to duplicate those attendance figures right now, but Schlagel said the sport already has a dedicated following that should grow.
“Anybody who’s been to the girls state tournament knows how electric it can be there,” she said. “We have boys across the state who have absolutely fallen in love with the sport, and I think the potential is incredible.”
Four teams from South Suburban Conference high schools qualified for the 2021 state tournament. Fifth-seeded Eagan defeated 12th-seeded Champlin Park 25-19, 25-20, 18-25, 24-26, 16-14 in the only five-set match of the opening round. The Wildcats also went five sets to defeat No. 4 seed Farmington in the second round, again winning a 16-14 final set.
After a 25-20, 25-14, 25-17 loss to Andover in the semifinals, Eagan defeated Blaine 20-25, 25-22, 25-17, 25-23 for third place.
Farmington went on to finish fifth in the tournament, defeating Shakopee 25-19, 26-28. 24-26, 25-17, 16-14 in its final match. Eastview lost to Shakopee and Great River/Twin Cities Academy in its two matches.
All-tournament players included middle blocker Alec Stowell and outside hitter Emmett Gustafson, both of Eagan, and outside hitters Mason Mortimer and Travis Wilcek of Farmington.
Eagan finished its season 14-2, Farmington was 13-2 and Eastview was 7-7. They were the top three teams in the Southeast Conference, a group that included Lakeville North, Lakeville South, Rosemount and Prior Lake.
The Wildcats had an unusual roster composition. Sixteen of the 21 players in the program, and all 10 varsity players, were seniors. Farmington, conversely, had only one senior – Mason Mortimer, who Schlagel said is considered the Tigers’ top player.
The five non-seniors in the Eagan program are “four sophomores and a freshman who played on our junior varsity team,” Schlagel said. “They’re already talking to their friends about next year, telling them how much fun they had playing this year.”
Outside hitters Alex Kemp and Emmett Gustafson were the only varsity team members who played in 2019, but the roster was filled with players who were athletic and could learn quickly. None of them play volleyball year round. “I think we were the only team in the state tournament that didn’t have any year-round players,” Schlagel said.
They improved significantly in the art of receiving serve, one of volleyball’s foundation skills.
“If you can pass, you can run an offense,” Schlagel said. “We grade passing on a 0 to 3 scale and if our passing is at 2 or better we feel like we have a chance to win a lot of matches. Alex Kemp in particular did really well. I think we graded him at 2.2 in passing for the season.”
Teams in the northwest and west metro suburbs might have a slight advantage currently because they’re closer to Minnesota Select, a Maple Grove volleyball club with a boys program. Schlagel said it shouldn’t be long before competitive boys programs are available across the metro area. Until then, the boys volleyball association is steering players to training opportunities through its website, mnboyshighschoolvolleyball.com.
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