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Alyssa Muelken, left, has 123 kills and 52 blocks, and Raven Klein has 170 kills despite being the team’s setter. Photo: Joel Koyama • jkoyama@startribune.com

The Burnsville volleyball team's time and energy investment is starting to pay dividends in the win column.

In conference play alone, the volleyball team flipped last year's 2-7 record to 8-1 this fall. That's one impressive turnaround in one impressive conference, one that contains some of the state's top talent.

Third-year head coach Kim Fritz didn't need a crystal ball to tell her this was coming.

"Even though we were 2-7 on the books, the growth and how they played as a team, they competed and they got better," Fritz said. "For me, we looked at the bigger picture. They progressed throughout the year, and they groomed themselves for the coming years."

That also means there are more smiles, laughter and high-fives in the locker room after a match. It's a welcome change for Alyssa Muelken, now in her third year on the varsity squad, who has seen her share of losses.

"At first it's tough through the growing times," said Muelken, a junior middle blocker. "But then once we got into this season, it's been very exciting and everyone's just out there having fun instead of just going through it. We're getting faster and just having more fun while we're playing."

Reasons for that turnaround include chemistry, experience and skill development.

This year's team contains more returning players -- four seniors and eight juniors -- who've been groomed into effective players. They've grown older, wiser, stronger, smarter and faster.

Then there's the team bonding. Senior setter Raven Klein said the Blaze has no problem hanging out on and off the court. That's not always an easy thing to do, but it's a critical component in developing team chemistry.

"I think we just generally like each other, which is sometimes hard when you have a group of teenage girls in the same area," Klein said. "I think in the beginning, just having that leg up on everyone else makes us work harder for each other."

They realized they were, in fact, a team to beat on Sept. 18, in a 3-1 victory over conference rival Eastview.

"We just went into it -- because Eastview has so many strong sports programs -- that we just had so much energy in the gym that night," Klein said. "When we beat them, it was just this big epiphany. We just kept building off of that energy."

The Blaze is loaded with a balanced lineup of contributors. Nikki Brolin leads the team in blocks with 57. Lauren Randall registered a team-leading 187 kills during the regular season. Greta Geist had 248 digs on the year. Muelken put up 52 blocks while adding 123 kills. Klein finished off 170 kills of her own.

A strong foundation, work ethic and time has not only established Burnsville volleyball in a strong conference, but set it on a path to victory now and in the future.

"They come in here, they do their reps, they do their work, they're positive, they're playing together, and this is what we get," Fritz said. "All the hard work they've put in together and as individuals has contributed to their success this year."

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