Maple Lake coach Marty Kiebel (center) has his team undefeated this season, and the defending Class 2A champion Irish attempt to remain perfect while making a run at another state crown. Photo by Cheryl Myers, SportsEngine
Maple Lake coach Marty Kiebel approached his defending Class 2A championship volleyball team early this season with some good news and some bad news.
First the good: The Irish had been invited to participate in the Midwest Classic at St. Michael-Albertville, a late-season tournament that featured a lineup studded with top Class 2A and 3A teams.
The bad? It was likely that the result would not be pretty.
“He told us that if we do this, we’re going to lose,” senior Amber Klug recalled.
Added teammate Linsey Rachel, “We took that as a challenge. No, we are not going to lose.”
And they didn’t. The Irish won the tournament, with four of their five victories over Class 3A opponents. They defeated two current Class 3A state tournament teams, Stillwater and Hopkins, in the semifinals and final, respectively.
For his part, Kiebel, a gregarious, good-natured sort, swears his team remembers his message a little more harshly than he presented it.
“I told them it was an opportunity to see where we’re at, but that there was a chance we could get beat,” he said. “I told them we don’t put together a schedule not to lose. We want to challenge them.”
The tournament title confirmed that Maple Lake, loaded with three-sport athletes in a school with just 277 students, can play with any team in the state.
The Irish (33-0), ranked No. 1 in Class 2A, earned the top seed in their class in the volleyball state tournament, which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.
Maple Lake has a 41-match winning streak, which includes last year’s state championship, and a deep and talented roster. Six players have more than 100 kills this season, paced by Rachel, a senior outside hitter who has 356 kills. She likely will top 2,000 for her career by the time the tournament is over (she’s currently at 1,982). Klug is versatile setter/hitter with more than 800 career kills and 1,300 career set assists. Senior 6-2 middle blocker Brynne Paumen, the tallest of the Irish, has 158 kills and 123 blocks despite missing a month because of a back injury.
Expectations were understandably high for Maple Lake this season after losing just two seniors to graduation. The Irish are an unusually tight-knit bunch with a competitive streak that never wavers.
“We have three rules: 1. Hustle. 2. Never let the ball hit the floor. 3. Always,” Kiebel said. “We might be up in a set 19-9 against a team that we’re better than, but I see them sprawl out, going for a ball. It might be easier to let that point go and play for the next one, but that’s not who we are. They would be disappointed if they let that ball hit the floor. Those are the plays I love because it means we’re buying in.”
That’s all part of their collective excellence. Their success and their drive are inextricably linked.
“We’ve been trained that no ball should hit the floor, even in practice,” Rachel said. “We’ll have five, 10 balls going, bouncing off the walls, but we try to save as many as we can.”
After their victory over Hopkins in the final at St. Michael, Kiebel walked over to shake the hand of Hopkins coach Vicki Swenson. When he turned around, his team had a message for him.
“They were standing there staring at me, holding the championship trophy,” he recalled. “They said ‘Mr. Kiebel, didn’t you say you got us into this tournament to lose?’ ”
Favorite: Two-time defending champion Eagan (28-1). The Wildcats’ only loss was a five-setter to Lakeville South in mid-September.
Challengers: Lakeville North (29-2), back for the first time since 2012, earned the No. 2 seed. The Panthers’ only losses were to Eagan. No. 3-seeded Champlin Park (27-4) is more diverse since the graduation of Sydney Hilley.
Dark horse: After an up-and-down season, Prior Lake (18-10) is peaking getting contributions from a lot of players.
Favorite: See above story.
Challenger: Marshall (26-7. The No. 2-seeded Tigers are balanced, with three players each having more than 200 kills.
Favorite: Defending champion Mayer Lutheran (29-2) has 11 players back from 2016. Their two losses were to defending champs Eagan (3A) and Maple Lake (2A).
Challenger: Minneota (27-5). The Vikings have just one senior but are well-trained.