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Eden Prairie Abby Ihrke celebrated a point during the 6AAA sectional finals at Benilde-St. Margaret in St Louis Park Min., Saturday, November 2, 2013 Eden Prairie won over Wayzata 3-1. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) email@example.com
The workload has been far greater and the growing pains much more painful, but for the Eden Prairie volleyball team, the reward has been sweet.
The Eagles defeated Lake Conference rival Wayzata for the Class 3A, Section 6 championship Saturday, advancing to the state tournament for the third consecutive season.
Considering the Eagles lost 10 seniors from their 2012 Class 3A runners-up to graduation, it’s a result that few outside of the Eden Prairie practice gym thought possible.
“We’ve been talking about this since the preseason,” coach Chad Becker said. “We know we’re replacing 10 seniors, but with the talent we have and the players we have, we’ve known all year long we were good enough to win the section. We just had to put in the hard work.”
Every coach stresses work ethic and commitment when their team is successful. The 2013 Eagles, however, took that credo to heart. And despite the joy and relief after their victory Saturday, the effort they put in was still very close to the surface.
“Chad has an affinity for underdogs,” junior outside hitter Abby Ihrke said. “We have passion for the game and he saw that. He pushed us a lot harder than I ever remembered.”
Asked about effort, senior co-captain Emma Teal nodded vigorously before the question was complete.
“It’s been 100 times harder this year,” Teal said. “Last year we had so many players we could rely on. This year, it’s been a more team effort. We’ve needed to rely on every single player.”
The Eagles (21-9) progressed through the season in fits and starts, often stumbling just when it seemed they were ready to take off, including four losses in five matches in mid-October. With the playoffs approaching and facing a difficult match against then No. 1-ranked Eagan, the Eagles’ season took off. They surprised the Wildcats, coming back from a first-set loss to win in four sets.
“That was a huge confidence booster,” said setter Elizabeth Mohr, one of two juniors (along with Ihrke) who share the captaincy with Teal. “It was the turning point of our season. We knew we could beat anyone in the state on any given day based on that game. It motivated us to work even harder.”
The captains, the only players with meaningful playing time in 2012, leaned on their postseason experience to help pull the team through the playoffs.
“I know what it feels like to be new to the experience because I was new last year,” Mohr said. “I know what to say because that’s what last year’s seniors said to me to make me feel at home in this environment.”
Resilience developed over the season paid off in the section finals. Eden Prairie won the first two sets, then dropped the third as Wayzata fought harder to stave off elimination.
In the fourth set the Eagles jumped out to a lead, only to suffer a potentially serious setback as the Trojans battled back. Ihrke, the Eagles’ kills leader and one of their best defenders, went down because of an ankle injury. At the time, the Eagles were clinging to a 21-20 lead.
Lesser teams might have crumbled after losing a player of Ihrke’s talents. But with eighth-grader Grace Persson and junior Anna Schrupp picking up the slack, the Eagles held on to win 26-24, and advance to state.
“I give them a lot of credit,” Becker said. “Our number one outside [hitter] goes down with an injury. She’s the rock of our team. But the kids stepped up. We talk about that a lot. If somebody’s struggling, others have to step up their game. They did that.”
Ihrke, her ankle wrapped in ice after the match, summed it up with what could be the motto for the 2013 Eagles. “I’m so proud of them,” Ihrke said. “I knew we could do that because we’ve become that close as a team. Our main goal is to play for each other.”
Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737