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Paige Tapp, center right, and Nora Reed, center left, combined for a double block during a Northern Lights practice. The unusually close team of elite players competes for an AAU national title this week. Photo: Bruce Bisping * bbisping@startribune.com

Paige and Hannah Tapp made their first 90-minute trip to the Northern Lights volleyball training center in Burnsville in December of 2011. Coming from the southeastern Minnesota volleyball hotbed of Stewartville, the tall and talented twin sisters were looking to take their game to another level. Northern Lights, with a roster that reads like a who’s-who of metro-area volleyball players, seemed like just the place to do it.

They entered the volleyball palace, unsure of what to expect or even if they belonged. That feeling lasted about as long as introductions.

“We were really nervous at first,” said Paige Tapp, who, at 6-2, is an inch shorter than her sister. “But we felt accepted pretty much right away. We’ve been comfortable here almost from the beginning.”

The sisters immediately took their places on Northern Lights’ top team at their age level. Among the seven other players on the team were Alyssa Goehner, Lakeville North’s dynamic outside hitter; Sarah Wilhite, Eden Prairie’s lanky hitting and digging machine; and Samantha Seliger Swenson, a smooth, heady setter whose play belies that she’s two years younger than the others.

Their talents meshed so well that Northern Lights won the U.S. Junior National 17-Under Championship last summer in Columbus, Ohio. 

“That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” Hannah Tapp said.

The core five are together again this year with four new teammates from the metro area and they’ve moved up to the highest level available for girls 18 and under. They spent the spring asserting themselves as one of the nation’s best youth teams, winning elite tournaments in Omaha and Denver and compiling a 62-3 record. The jewel was winning the Pordenone (Italy) Memorial in early April, becoming only the second American team to win the prestigious international event.

In short, the Northern Lights’ 18-1 Junior Olympic girls’ volleyball can make a strong case for being the best girls’ volleyball team to ever come out of Minnesota.

“There have been other teams we’ve had that have had as much individual talent,” coach and club director Adam Beamer said. “But the thing that sets this team apart is how well they get along. This is the best team, in that sense of the word.”

Northern Lights is competing in Orlando this week, trying to win another AAU national championship. When that tournament is over, the team heads to Dallas with their eyes on an even bigger prize: the U.S. Junior Olympic Championship.

Winning one would be a tremendous accomplishment. Winning both? Practically unheard of, but it’s what the Northern Lights girls have in mind.

“We’re focused,” said Wilhite, one of four players on the team who will be playing college volleyball for the Gophers. “And we are all so supportive of each other. That helps so much. We all know what we have to do.”

This team includes newcomers in defensive specialists Lauren Houg of Wayzata and Kat Hawkins of Blaine, outside hitter Tegan LaBerge of Maple Grove and middle blocker Nora Reed of Hopkins. Together since early December, the teammates’ current 11-day journey is their fourth and longest out-of-state trip.

For many teams, fatigue and personality conflicts would be their biggest worry. But this group’s strength is getting along, and it shows on the court.

“That is the amazing thing,” Houg said. “You have elite athletes all together in one place and we all enjoy each other’s company so much. You can have nine great individuals, but if they don’t come together as a team, you aren’t going to win anything.”

A strong bond among teammates has been evident from the beginning, Wilhite said, but the trip to Italy provided the industrial-strength glue.

“That was the most incredible experience,” she said. “We hung out all the time. We were always together. We didn’t want to go to our own rooms. That’s when you could really feel our, well, teaminess.”

With such differing backgrounds and schools, such “teaminess” is remarkable. It’s also not quite as organic as the players would like to believe.

“It’s taken a little bit of work,” said Beamer, a 30-year volleyball coach and player who has seen firsthand how conflict and selfishness can whittle away at high hopes.

“We stressed bonding from day one,” he said. “We talked about getting things out in the open and supporting each other. Last year, we had a long talk about it and since then, everything has been great.”

While Northern Lights has been clearly been among the best teams in the nation for two years — “People know who we are,” Wilhite said — the task ahead is tougher than it was a year ago. To win the titles they’re shooting for, they’ll likely have to beat two archrivals on their home courts: Orlando Amateur Volleyball in the AAU tournament and Texas Amateur Volleyball in Dallas. Seeing the difficult road ahead, Beamer spoke realistically.

“There are some really good, athletic teams. We can’t make mistakes and expect to win,” he said. “But the best part of this team is that no one gets down on each other. They’re all pulling for each other. That makes a huge difference.”

Win or lose, team members are aware of their place in Minnesota volleyball history. They are also aware that this will be their last time playing together. Seven of them are headed off to college (Goehner and Seliger Swenson are still in high school), ready to take the next step in their volleyball careers.

“I’m excited to see what I can do in college,” said Wilhite, who will share a dorm room at Minnesota with the Tapp sisters. “But I’ll never forget this team. They aren’t just friends. Their like sisters.”

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