Champlin Park outside hitter Emma Schmidt (Jeff Lawler. Sports Engine)
He had been keeping his former team in suspense. After leaving the Champlin Park volleyball program he built into one of the most consistent teams in the state, John Yunker wouldn’t give an answer about his potential return.
In January, he left to be an assistant coach at the University of North Dakota, but five months later, he started hinting to some of his players the move might not be permanent.
Then, Emma Schmidt checked her phone during an open gym to see a text from Yunker in the team’s group message. He was returning to Champlin Park.
“We were all kind of confused what we were going to do,” Schmidt said. “We knew with the people we had we were going to make it work, but we were really excited when he came back.”
Yunker called it “a perfect storm” that brought Champlin Park’s most successful coach back. It was hard for him to leave in the first place, after spending the past six years building the program and watching the current Rebels grow. Schmidt cried when she first heard Yunker was leaving.
But even with how great an opportunity North Dakota presented, Yunker said he couldn’t stop himself from looking back and wondering about his old team. With the Champlin Park position still being open, he was able to make a smooth return.
Yunker returned to a team grappling with how to replace last year’s senior class, which included two-time Metro Player of the Year Sydney Hilley.
The Rebels started gearing up for the season with plenty of questions, but have dismissed all concerns with a 20-3 record and the No. 6 ranking in Class 3A.
“I don’t think a lot of people were sure how we were going to do with the graduations last year,” Yunker said. “We talked as a team about how we had a lot of talent back, but what does that mean? If you lose a lot to graduation, you’re not sure how it’s going to be.”
What’s happened is a lot of transition. Schmidt, a junior, has started setting in addition to hitting. Junior Izzy Ashburn, a Wisconsin commit, added hitting to her repertoire after organizing the attack as a setter the past two years.
Schmidt has continued her consistent improvement as an outside hitter and leads the team with an average of five kills per set, while also becoming one of the Rebels’ most reliable setters with just over four assists per set, Yunker said.
Ashburn, meanwhile, leads Champlin Park with just over eight assists a set and is second behind Schmidt with just under three kills a set.
“The adjustment has taken some time, I think, but at the same time this whole team is very supportive,” Ashburn said. “Me and Emma, she’s setting and I’m hitting now so we’re helping each other out. People really paired up and are helping each other.”
Even with all the changes, Champlin Park still finds itself in a familiar position — poised to return to the Class 3A state tournament after falling to Eagan 3-1 — last year’s title game.
The results so far have been eerily similar, Yunker said. Both regular-season losses last year came to Lakeville North and Hopkins in regular-season tournaments.
This season Champlin Park has lost to the same two teams, with a third tournament loss coming to Stillwater. The Rebels are hoping the ending to this year’s story is different.
“We definitely want a rematch, that’s for sure,” Schmidt said. “We think we can beat [Eagan] and they probably think they can beat us, and it’s just who brings their game so I’m really excited.”
That possibility is still a long ways off, but Eagan is No. 1 in Class 3A and the Section 3 favorite.