Eagan's Brie Orr spiked the ball against Southwest in the second game (Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune)
Eagan volleyball coach Kathy Gillen enjoys the new challenges each season presents, and this year is no exception.
The longtime mentor has a group of five seniors, combined with a youth movement of sophomores and freshmen, looking to successfully defend the Wildcats’ Class 3A state championship. The coaches association poll had them ranked second in the preseason poll behind Chaska, which was upset last week by Prior Lake.
“We have a good mix of seniors and younger players,” Gillen said. “There are going to be some young kids playing pivotal roles.”
A position sophomore Brie Orr found herself in a year ago. She was selected to the state all-tournament team.
“Going to the state tournament was hard for me to grasp at first,” Orr said. “I was nervous to play the first match with everybody staring down on us at the Xcel Energy Center. It really didn’t come to me until a week later that we had won it.”
Orr hopes future Wildcats get a chance to experience it, too.
“We thought we possibly could go to state but weren’t real sure,’’ Orr said. “We really came together as a team.”
Gillen welcomes back four starters, including Orr, from that 30-2 team of a year ago. The other returning starters are seniors Maddie McNeil, Alix Putman and Callie Schapekahm.
“They are a group that is focused, and works hard,” Gillen said. “It’s everything you would hope for from your returning players.”
They also bring with them a lot of flexibility. McNeil and Orr are outside hitters/setters, Schapekahm is a middle blocker while Putman is a defensive specialist.
“We are very athletic, and talented,” Gillen said. “I’m happy they all chose to play volleyball instead of another sport.”
Sophomore middle blocker Alyssa Doucette and freshman outside hitter Ally Murphy could play major roles for the Wildcats. “They might be inexperienced at the varsity, but they have played a lot of volleyball,” Gillen said.
One player the Wildcats won’t be able to replace is Taylr McNeil. She is now playing at South Carolina with her older sister, Kellie. Maddie is their younger sibling.
“You never are going to be able to replace a player like Taylr,” Gillen said. “We don’t have that sure-handed person to end a play. She was an amazing terminator.”
This year’s version of the Wildcats will look to fill that void with “a lot more balance than I’ve ever had before,” Gillen said. “We have a lot of depth.”
Gillen is counting on her seniors as well as Orr to provide leadership for her younger players.
“I always try to be a leader on and off the court,” Schapekahm said. “I’ll have more of a responsibility this year.”
Both Orr and Schapekahm realize the Wildcats will bring out the best in every team they face this season.
“I know we have a target on our back from winning it last year,” Orr said. “We’re not going to approach anything differently because of that.”
Gillen is looking forward to this group making a run for its sixth state title in school history. Gillen also guided the Wildcats to championships in 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2003.
“Eagan is well-known for its volleyball team,” Schapekahm said. “The success of past teams has made it a great program.”