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Minnesota club-high school volleyball balance knocked askew by prep season delay

By JIM PAULSEN, Star Tribune, 08/14/20, 3:45PM CDT


Moving the sport to spring collides with the state’s significant club programs, which draw top players honing skills and seeking to earn college offers.

Concordia outside hitter Kira Fallert (13) hit the ball past Stewartville outside hitter Kaitylyn Prondzinski (15) in in match during the 2019 season. Photo: ANTHONY SOUFFLE • anthony.souffle@startribune.com

While postponing the Minnesota high school football season hogged much of the headlines, the decision to move volleyball has created seismic upheaval to its carefully arranged system and thrown top players into uncertainty about their futures.

Club — also known at Junior Olympic or JO — volleyball plays an essential role in the development and college recruitment of high school-age players. Players play high school volleyball to represent their schools and compete with their friends, a 3½-month hitch built on fun. They play JO to hone their skills, compete against other serious volleyball players from across the state and nation, and hopefully land a college scholarship.

Until the Minnesota State High School League’s Aug. 4 decision to delay football and volleyball because of the coronavirus pandemic, the two modes of volleyball coexisted peacefully. Volleyball clubs patiently waited for the end of the high school season before embarking on their seven-month season. But the league’s decision to shift the season to run from March through May -- provided virus conditions allow it -- has turned the harmony into chaos and uncertainty.

“I don’t know how we’re going to have a season,” Eagan coach Kathy Gillen said. “That’s the primary club season. That’s when the players get seen by recruiters.”

When the pandemic initially surged last March, it forced the cancellation of virtually every athletic competition. The shutdown came at the height of the club volleyball season, costing athletes exposure in front of hundreds of recruiters who ringed the courts at regional and national venues.

“It happened right when the big tournaments would have happened,” said Kira Fallert, a 6-foot outside hitter who plays high school volleyball at Concordia Academy and club at highly regarded Northern Lights in Burnsville. “I kept thinking about the big tournaments we would have been to: Denver, Kansas City, Dallas, Nashville. We didn’t get to go to any of them.”

Most volleyball players haven’t played a competitive match since, a span of at least five months. Take away the high school season and the break becomes nearly three-fourths of a year.

“I don’t remember ever going that long without volleyball,” said Eagan senior setter Kennedi Orr, considered the state’s top high school senior. “I practiced with my club team a couple of weeks ago just to get a few touches. I, for sure, don’t feel as comfortable as I’d like.”

Eagan's Kennedi Orr (2) shot the ball through the defense of Lakeville South in a match last season. Photo: JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com

Most of the top clubs organized fall leagues when the league’s decision came down. Spots in those leagues filled up quickly.

“Training two nights a week with competition on Sunday,” said Adam Beamer, director of volleyball at Northern Lights. “We opened up about 300 spots and it filled up immediately. We’re trying to do something to make up for what they missed. The kids were disappointed about what happened to high school and they jumped at it.”

As two of the state’s best seniors, Orr and Fallert have the luxury of already having a college commitment safely secured. Orr has been committed to Nebraska for more than a year. Fallert is headed to Northern Iowa.

The shift of seasons will likely hit hardest for seniors who have yet to land a collegiate offer. The lengthy lack of competition at any level has forced them to take a more hands-on approach to post-high school plans.

Concordia Academy senior setter Brooke Weichbrodt expected to have her volleyball future set by this time. Instead, she’s been parked in front of her laptop since last March, looking up Division I programs that have her preferred field of study and letting them know she’s available. Exactly the opposite of how it worked in the past, when playing national tournaments tended to result in catching the eye of recruiters.

“When the club season was cut short, there were some colleges that were planning on coming and looking at me and following me,” Weichbrodt said. “Since then, it’s been kind of difficult. But I’ve been trying to take the positive out of this. I’ve been making phone calls, sending e-mails to colleges that I have an interest in.”

While it’s not the way she expected to be spending her time leading up to her senior season, she said it hasn’t been all bad.

“When I was a freshman, a sophomore, I had a different idea about what I wanted. Now, I have a better understanding of what I want to pursue,” she said. “I’ve made sure the schools I’m contacting have what I’m looking for. I’m a student-athlete. The education is the most important part of this.”

Shakopee senior outside hitter Aryana Forsberg had three colleges showing interest in her, even after the pandemic shot down the club season. But when a number of college conferences canceled their fall seasons, it forced many programs to alter their recruiting plans, leaving her to scramble.

“I’ve had them tell me they’re not recruiting [class of 2021] anymore because so many of them are moving their seasons to spring, too,” she said.

Like Weichbrodt, Forsberg has been forced to become her own agent, dedicating her time to tracking down potential landing spots. “I’ve sent so many e-mails out. I’m checking it just about every hour,” she said.

With all of the proactive work she and other players have put in, Weichbrodt said she hopes the high school league allow them to play high school and club volleyball at the same time this spring, to help make up for what they’ve lost.

The league’s rules generally prohibit students from competing in the same sport at the same time as the high school season. But the belief among some in the volleyball community is that it will strongly consider waiving that rule.

“I’m crossing my fingers that the league will allow us to play both because spring is such a crucial time to club,” Weichbrodt said. “It would be very busy, but it would be something I really want to do.”

Said Forsberg, “I would definitely play both if I could.”

Beamer and Scott Jackson, coach of 2019 Class 3A champion Wayzata and the director of Minnesota Select Volleyball, think it can be done. Within reason, of course.

“Making them choose between the high school and club seasons wouldn’t be fair,” Beamer said. “If high schools try to cram a lot into a short season, that’s not good for the players. I think we can find a way to make it work for both.”

Jackson said, “There would have to be limitations. Maybe limit clubs to practices once a week and play on weekends, where they can get seen by college coaches. That’s a valuable time for clubs.”

It would go a long way toward soothing the concerns of coaches such as Gillen.

“I’m worried I won’t have a team,” she said. “Every girl I have plays club volleyball.”

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