Isabelle Aragon-Menzel is starting at setter as an eighth-grader for the Minnetonka High School volleyball team. Photo: Joel Koyama • email@example.com
It's the pinnacle of a high school career for many metro-area athletes: After joining a sport in middle school or freshman year, scared to even speak to the older kids on the team, they work and persevere to play unheralded seasons on the B-squad or JV team. Improve enough and they grab a coveted spot as a junior or senior on varsity and a chance at playing before crowds at night.
There are numerous exceptions, however. Meet some instant A-squad athletes, polished enough before they're old enough to drive to make the big time in soccer, cross-country and volleyball.
'Best chance to win' is 8th-grader
Isabelle Aragon-Menzel's jaw nearly hit the floor the first time she walked into Minnetonka High School. That's bound to happen when you come over to one of the biggest schools in the state from a group of classmates who could barely make up their own volleyball team.
Aragon-Menzel is one of just seven students in the eighth grade at St. John the Baptist school. But when the final bell rings each day this fall, she'll head over to Minnetonka -- enrollment 2,750 -- for volleyball practice.
She doesn't just participate. Aragon-Menzel is the starting setter.
"Coming into tryouts, I just knew I had to go out onto that court and prove myself," she said. "A lot of people helped me get to this position, and I am very grateful for that. I have so much support from my teammates, who are the best in the world. It's been a lot to take in.
"And the school is really, really big."
Statistics would suggest Aragon-Menzel has fit in swimmingly.
The 10th-ranked Skippers took No. 6 Shakopee to five sets last week and defeated the Sabers 25-19, 29-31, 19-25, 25-21, 15-10. Aragon-Menzel finished with 59 set assists.
"She's handled it almost perfectly," Minnetonka coach Karl Katzenberger said. "Really happy to see that so far. For her, it's just another game. She plays the right way: unselfish and makes things happen for her team."
Extracting young talent from a large district is rare but not unheard of. Across town at Hopkins, Samantha Seliger-Swenson, a sophomore setter, is in her fourth year of varsity already.
"We've been aware of Isabelle since she was in sixth grade, but her tryout surprised us," Katzenberger said. "We determined she was going to be our best chance to win."
Aragon-Menzel has a fearlessness about her, he said. One of his main jobs now is to not let the talk stretch too much into the future.
"Tomorrow is never promised," Katzenberger said. "It's easy to jump the gun and project. If we get better every day, the results will take care of themselves."
If Aragon-Menzel has things her way, there will be a whole lot more ups than downs.
"I want to be a really good teammate and play for the kid next to me, not myself," she said.
Mature 'Special Six' lead Mustangs
Michigan men's basketball had the Fab Five, a starting lineup of freshmen with talents beyond their years. Mounds View's girls' soccer program boasts the Special Six, a group of ninth-graders already making contributions.
Julia Anderson, twins Emily and Rachel Boyer, Emily Nash, Mariah Northrop and Lauren Wikstrom are a unique group, Mustangs coach Sharon Swallen said. Northrop debuted last week with two goals and an assist against Irondale while defenders Anderson and Emily Boyer started the game. The other three aren't far behind.
"The freshmen we have this year are just different," Swallen said. "They are mature. They are physically strong and they are mentally ready."
All six played together on the Centennial U-15 premiere summer team. Staying together this fall at Mounds View was an unexpected delight.
"The day we found out we were all on varsity together, we all just looked at each other," Anderson said. "It was a dream come true."
Said Emily Boyer: "We were like, 'OK, it looks like we're going to be together for awhile.'"
Swallen selected the six freshmen with some consternation. An influx of freshmen, no matter how talented, means cutting upperclassmen and risking emotional fallout. But players have bought in, she said.
"The four seniors we have want to play on a good team, and they've been tremendous in the way they have accepted the younger girls," Swallen said.
Other than paying their dues by collecting balls after practice and moving the nets, the freshmen are not singled out.
"I look up to the upperclassmen," Northrop said. "We're together and we're a team. Your age doesn't matter."
Northrop kept her two-goal performance against Irondale in similar perspective.
"Coming in as a freshman, I see my role more as helping set up others," Northrop said. "It's all about the team."
Anderson and Boyer noted the bigger, faster girls playing varsity soccer and said staying strong mentally will be paramount.
"My whole life I've been trying to get to this level," Anderson said. "Being able to potentially play varsity all four years is a huge deal."
DAVID LA VAQUE
Freshman runner doesn't back down
Most coaches would agree: Having a player miss the first week of a new season is far from ideal. It's even more ill-advised if the athlete happens to be in position to crack his first varsity roster.
But Wyatt Midvedt wasn't about to miss a late-summer trip to Florida with his family. Midvedt's father had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan with the National Guard.
"He's the one who got me into running," said Midvedt, a freshman boys' cross-country runner at New Prague. "He first took me out when I was like 8. I've loved it ever since."
In preparation for being absent from the Trojans' first week of practice, Midvedt stepped up his summer runs. When he returned from Florida, he was hardly a step behind.
Coach Nick Meyer instructed the team to run 200-meter sprints on repeat. Midvedt did a dozen of them without hesitation.
"The No. 1 thing with him is his mentality; he doesn't back down from anything," Meyer said.
The sixth-year coach first noticed Midvedt a couple of years ago at a middle school meet. Middle school races are often run on the same day as high school events, and by the time last fall rolled around Meyer knew he was watching the future.
"We've known for a while he would be a varsity-caliber runner," Meyer said. "I hesitated a little to have him come up in the last year or two, even though he could have. But I wanted him to come along at his own pace. He's definitely ready."
As his first official varsity race approached last week, Midvedt had little concern about his physical abilities going up against some of the South metro's best at Eagan. But his nerves were beginning to twitch.
"High school [races are] the next big step for me," he said. "The meets put me on edge. I just want to contribute. I've put in the miles but I certainly have a long way to go. I'm not there yet. Someday."