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Eagan junior outside hitter Taylr McNeil
Taylr McNeil is clearly in her element on the volleyball court.
The Eagan outside hitter leaps with grace and hits with power. She digs out balls adroitly, turning opponents' attacks into offensive opportunities. Even rare failures -- a spike a little too deep, a pass slightly off the mark -- draw admiring scrutiny, like a baseball player crushing a ball that goes just foul.
"I just love to play," said the exuberant, vocal McNeil, her ever-present smile getting a little wider. "I love being on court. That's my favorite place."
That passion has spilled over to the team around her. Eagan has a history of producing quality players, but the junior's presence has turned good to great, potential to achievement.
The Wildcats are 17-2, their only losses coming back-to-back in two-set matches to Wayzata and Shakopee at the Apple Valley Eagle Invitational.
"She is the glue, the coach on the court," Eagan coach Kathy Gillen-Melville said. "She does everything well."
Doubly disappointing stretch
McNeil's versatility appeared to have directed her future toward the University of Minnesota.
In 2010, then-Gophers coach Mike Hebert offered scholarships to Taylr and her older sister, Kellie. Both were playing for Lakeville North at the time.
Kellie played for the Gophers last year while the rest of the McNeil family moved to Eagan. Taylr -- her name spelled in a twist meant to set her apart -- led the Wildcats to the semifinals of the high-caliber Class 3A, Section 3 playoffs. They were defeated by -- you guessed it -- Lakeville North.
The high school offseason then brought more disappointment.
New Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, who led the U.S. women's team to a silver medal at the London Olympics this summer, was eager to put his own stamp on the program. Kellie left the university team. One month later, Taylr's scholarship offer was rescinded.
Volleyball Internet chat rooms and comment threads were filled with speculation. McNeil was so inundated with questions that she made the topic off-limits, save for an occasional acknowledgement of the situation.
Initially taken aback by the decision, McNeil said, she adopted a forward-thinking approach. The Gophers' loss, she feels, is her gain.
"I'm not unhappy about it," she said. "I get to go around and look at other schools. It's been fun. I'm looking forward the future."
McNeil said she's narrowed her list of future colleges to three, but won't divulge them until the season is over.
"Right now, all I want to focus on is this season," she said.
Not just a supporting cast
A straight-set victory over South Suburban Conference rival Burnsville on Thursday added to expectations for the Wildcats that are as high as they have been since Eagan won four big-school state championships between 1997 and 2003.
In the match, McNeil was everywhere, setting up as a primary defensive option, then rotating to hit from the left side, where she's most comfortable.
But the Wildcats are much more than McNeil and a supporting cast.
Nicole Johnson, a versatile setter, can also step up and hit from the front row. Bri Pernsteiner is having an all-state-caliber season blocking and hitting from the middle. Senior libero Calleigh Steichen provides the energy and leads the team in floor burns.
"Of course, we love having Taylr because she's amazing, but it's about more than just one person," Pernsteiner said. "I feel like we have a lot of great players. The team comes first."
Which is exactly the way McNeil wants it. Coming from Lakeville North, McNeil felt accepted last year but now knows that Eagan is not only her new school but her home.
"I felt that the moment I walked into the gym this year," she said. "We're all equals. We're always talking and joking. And we've all these fans here, cheering for us. It feels like family."
Neighboring itch to scratch
Despite their success, the Wildcats have one nagging itch that they are aching to scratch:
The defending Class 3A champions are ranked No. 1. The Panthers are also in the same section. The teams are scheduled to meet Oct. 16, and it's a challenge Eagan is ready for.
"This is, by far, the best team we've had at Eagan since I've been involved," Steichen said. "We are just as strong as they are."
McNeil insists her desire to beat Lakeville North is simply competitive. There are no personal issues. It's about playing volleyball, she says. Nothing more.
"It will be just another game," she said. "They're a great team, but so are we. It's not about me. It's about us."