Kathy Gillen, Eagan’s Hall of Fame coach, has spent the season downplaying that she coaches the best, deepest volleyball in the state.
After Eagan defeated Champlin Park 25-20, 17-25, 25-20, 25-20 Saturday at Xcel Energy Center to win the Class 3A state championship — the Wildcats’ third in four years — Gillen allowed herself a chance to exhale.
“We haven’t talked about it at all this season, but it’s hard to have a target on your back all season,” Gillen said. “Next year, with a different group, hopefully the target’s gone.”
As soon as those words left her mouth, McKenna Melville, Eagan’s do-everything outside hitter and Gillen’s daughter, shook her head, as if to say it won’t get any easier.
A raucous crowd at Xcel saw a superbly played match befitting a championship. While Eagan has been the consensus No. 1 team all year, Champlin Park and its remarkable outside hitter Sydney Hilley emerged as the second-best team in the state. In fact, the Rebels were the only team to defeat Eagan all season.
It was expected that Hilley, who won the 2016 Minnesota Ms. Volleyball award Wednesday, would carry the Rebels, it surprised even her that she would be on the attack at often as she was. She finished with 27 kills — but she needed an outrageous 110 attacks to get them.
“Wow, 110 swings?” Hilley said. “I didn’t know it would that many. I knew it was a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever had that many before.”
Eagan countered with an intense block put up by its front row, led by the fabulous Orr sisters — Brie, a senior, and Kennedi, an eighth-grader.
Brie, who was a starter for all three of the Wildcats’ recent championship teams, finished with 18 kills and 19 assists in the last volleyball match of her high school career. Kennedi, considered the top eighth-grade volleyball player in the country, had 12 kills and 18 assists.
Brie said this championship was special because Kennedi was right there with her.
“Having the chance to play with her for the last two years make this special,” said Brie, who plans to graduate early and begin her college career at Iowa in January. “It’s the last time I’ll get to play with her.”
Eagan took a back-and-forth first set 25-20, scoring five of the last six points to break a 19-19 tie. It was a pattern that would be repeated in sets three and four, as the two teams battled neck-and-neck for most of the set before Eagan would pull away at the end.
“I’m not sure why we’re able to do that, but it seems to happen a lot,” Gillen said. “I always say it’s because of the horseshoe in their pockets.”
For Champlin Park, the loss signals the end of Hilley’s career – she, too, is graduating early and will begin training with Wisconsin in January – but not the end of the program she helped boost. Like Eagan, Champlin Park is stocked with young talent. Players like sophomores Izzy Ashburn and Emma Schmidt and freshmen Jordan Stalpes, Sami Hilley and Hannah Prasky are expected to keep the Rebels at or near the top in Class 3A.
“We have a group of seniors that changed the face of the program,” Rebels coach John Yunker said. “And the ones that are coming back are hungry to keep it going. “
Just as it did in the semifinals, Eagan made a superstar hitter look mortal.
The Wildcats forced Champlin Park’s Sydney Hilley to work exhaustively, and used their depth to win a third Class 3A championship in four years with a 25-20, 17-25, 25-21, 25-21 victory.
Brie Orr had 18 kills and younger sister Kennedi added 12 for Eagan. Hilley, the reigning Ms. Volleyball, had a match-high 27 kills but needed an astonishing 110 attacks to do it.
Eagan won the title in 2013 and 2015 and finished as runners-up in 2014.
Check back later for more on the match played Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.