North St. Paul coach Stephanie Blanda instructs her players during their section final victory over Stillwater. Don't be surprised if you see Blanda and her team dancing at the state tournament. Photo: Cheryl A. Myers, SportsEngine
Stephanie Blanda’s plans include dancing when her North St. Paul Polars take the court Thursday in the Class 3A volleyball quarterfinals.
And not just because the Polars will be making the first state tournament appearance in team history, although that would be reason enough. Dancing and music have been a part of their game all season and the third-year head coach is expected to participate. Which she has done willingly.
“Music and dance really bonds people. We always have music playing,” Blanda said. “I’m currently familiar with every hip-hop song that exists.”
There is even a portion of a song by rap artist Blue Face that the team reserves for a Blanda solo before every match. “They make me do a part of it,” said Blanda, a 1996 Tartan grad who took over the program three years ago. “But, yeah, we like to dance.”
North St. Paul is one of three teams appearing for the first time in the state tournament Class 3A bracket Thursday morning at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
St. Louis Park earned its first berth with a tough five-set victory over Bloomington Jefferson in the Section 6 finals. And Elk River has battled through brutally tough schedule and remains standing after defeating Forest Lake in the Section 7 championship match.
Throw in No. 4 seeded Minnetonka, making its first appearance since 1976, and the largest-school class has one of the freshest fields in its history.
“This is completely thrilling for us,” St. Louis Park coach Whitney Meierotto-Simon said. “We knew we had it in us”
While North St. Paul boogied its way to the tournament, the Orioles relied on the athleticism of a group of two- and three-sport athletes. Other programs are stocked with year-round players, Meierotto-Simon said, so she knew the Orioles would face “some growing pains.”
“We tend to start slower than other teams because our girls haven’t been playing since last fall, but they’re very coachable,” she said.
It became evident about three weeks ago that St. Louis Park had a real chance to end its season at the X.
“In practice, we were focusing on scrimmaging and things started to click,” Meierotto-Simon said.
At Elk River, coach Theresa Brummer has spent years building a foundation. The final piece, Brummer discovered, was addressing what’s going on in her players’ brains.
“We’ve been working with mental training,” Brummer said. “To not overreact to difficult situations, to stay in the moment and not panic. Over the last three weeks, we started to realize we can do this.”
Three different approaches, all ending with the desired result: A coveted spot in the most important volleyball tournament of the season.
They all agree on one thing: It’s the payoff they’d all been working for.“To finally punch through and get this far, it’s just overwhelming,” Brummer said.
Eagan, undefeated and seeded No. 1, is the clear front-runner, seeking its seventh consecutive championship game appearance and eighth championship overall. Wayzata is the No. 2 seed and has perhaps the field’s deepest group of hitters/blockers. Moorhead, the No. 5 seed, is making its 25th state tournament appearance.
North Branch, the No. 3 seed, has outside hitter Cianna Selbitschka, setter Paige Sheehan and middle blocker Reagan Irons back from its 2018 championship team. But that may not be enough. Both No. 1 seed Stewartville and No. 2 seed Marshall have not lost a match to a non-3A program all year.
Minneota, the No. 1 seed, has been unrelenting, losing just eight total sets all season. Waterville-Elysian-Morristown has been equally impressive, losing just once since August (to Mayer Lutheran), a loss the Buccaneers avenged in the Section 2 finals.