Members of the Lakeville North volleyball team are thinking about the state tournament, but you won’t hear them talk about it.
“If it comes up in conversation we will literally just say ‘dot dot dot’ or ‘blank.’ We just laugh and kind of make a joke about it,” senior captain Kennedy Brady said. “We’ve never really worried about it. We’re just focused on the process and working to get better, never on the destination.”
That approach has been a successful one for the Panthers. They took a 26-2 record into the Class 3A, Section 1 tournament where, as the No. 1 seed, they received a first-round bye and hosted a quarterfinal match Friday. They’re ranked second in Class 3A, with both their losses coming to top-ranked Eagan.
“This team loves playing with each other. When we don’t lose track of that and we show excitement, we tend to play well as a group,” said coach Jackie Richter, who has led the program for four years. “We’re well-balanced offensively and have the ability to play some really gritty defense and put up a strong block to disrupt our opponents.”
Lakeville North’s offense is led by junior outside hitter Elizabeth Juhnke, who has 340 kills this season. Senior captain Amanda Burger and junior Amelia Wherland split setting duties for an attack that boasts five players with at least 125 kills each. Brady, fellow captain Arianna Barrett and junior Tori Thompson have combined for more than 200 blocks.
Sophomore defensive specialist Halle Wolfe leads the Panther back row with 300 digs and 454 serve receptions.
“This group has some good years under their belts. They’ve got experience, they’re hard working and they’re athletic. They’re very confident in their own abilities,” Richter said. “Those things, combined with staying motivated in the gym and being committed to their own standards and expectations, have led to some really good seasons.”
Most of the Panthers were part of last year’s senior-less team that went 20-7 before falling to Lakeville South in the section finals. Brady said that experience led to the team coming into this season even more focused and determined.
“The first practice was a trendsetter,” she said. “We came into the gym and we put everything into it from Day 1. That set the tone for the season and we’ve kept with it ever since.”
The Panthers opened the season with a 15-match winning streak. They suffered their first loss to top-ranked Eagan in thrilling fashion Sept. 23 in the finals of the Eagle Invitational in Apple Valley. They fell to the Wildcats again just over a week later in South Suburban Conference play.
“Our conference is just awesome. We grind out our matches day in and day out throughout the entire season,” Richter said. “The advantage [is] you grow in those big moments and five-set matches. The hope is that at this point in the season the team is confident in themselves that they can gut out those big moments in the big matches.”
Big moments could be rapidly approaching. Lakeville North travels to Rochester on Nov. 1 for the Section 1 semifinals Wednesday. If it advances it likely will face third-ranked Lakeville South for the fourth time this season in the finals Saturday. The Panthers defeated their crosstown rivals at the Marshall and Lakeville North tournaments and won a closely contested 3-1 match during conference play.
“South has a great team and a great program. We just try to bypass the whole rivalry reality and remind the team to not fluctuate based on the opponent,” Richter said. “I’m confident if we meet up again both teams will come in really prepared.”
In the meantime, the Panthers are focused on their main goal of getting better every day. If they can do that, they’ll be in position to achieve their unspoken goal of returning to the state tournament for the first time since winning it all in 2012.
“We know there’s no limit to where we can go,” Brady said. “We can always get back to the gym and work on those little things that will take our game to a whole new level.”