Eagan senior Taylr McNeil bumped the ball to set up for her teammate during a game against Prior Lake. (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE)
Family and fans of Eagan’s team stormed the court after the Class 3A, Section 3 awards ceremony. They were celebrating the Wildcats’ four-set victory over defending state champion Lakeville North on Saturday at Prior Lake High School.
As ubiquitous cameras and cellphones recorded hugs, smiles and back-pats from every angle, Eagan senior outside hitter Taylr McNeil stood smack in the middle of the joyous tumult, soaking in a feeling that she thought she might never feel again.
Younger girls, talking and giggling at the same time, stood in a group, each waiting for a turn to have their picture taken with McNeil. Neighbors and family members came over with congratulations.
“I am so thankful for this opportunity,” said McNeil, her distinctive broad smile seemingly etched on her face. “Our team was amazing, our coach is amazing, our fans are amazing. This is great.”
She was referring to the Wildcats advancing to the volleyball state tournament, starting Thursday.
McNeil and her older sister, Kellie, played for Lakeville North in 2010 when the Panthers won the Class 3A state championship. The next year the family moved to Eagan, another school with an established volleyball tradition. It was hoped that McNeil could lead the Wildcats to multiple state tournaments. But in 2011 and 2012, they lost to Lakeville North in the section finals.
Getting to the state tournament, which had seemed natural as a freshman, became McNeil’s No. 1 goal. And, once again, Lakeville North stood in the way this year.
McNeil, who will play at South Carolina next year, was the best player on the court in the finals. She was a backboard on defense and a hammer at the net, pounding winner after winner.
“This is a huge deal for us,” McNeil said. “We always knew we could do it. We finally got over the hump after always losing to them. It was our time to shine.”
Eagan (27-2) earned the No. 1 seed in Class 3A for the tournament at Xcel Energy Center. Osseo is the No. 2 seed, Delano the No. 3.
For McNeil, this state appearance with Eagan is similar to her first. Then, she and Kellie were two of the main pieces on a state championship team. This year, McNeil will play with her sister Maddie, a junior and one of the Wildcats’ two starting setters.
Two-time defending champion Marshall, making its 13th consecutive state tournament trip, earned the No. 1 seed. The Tigers (29-3) have not lost to a Class 2A team all season. They are led by four-year starters Sydney Griffin, a setter, and Kenzie Beekman, an outside hitter with 475 kills this season.
A new champion was assured after two-time defending champion Faribault Bethlehem Academy lost in the Section 1 final to Fillmore Central, which helped earn the Falcons (33-2) the No. 1 seed. Minneota is seeded No. 2 and Southwest Christian, the 2012 runner-up, No. 3.