Undefeated Panthers win Eagle Invite

Top-ranked volleyball team runs record to 14-0

Lakeville North’s Alyssa Goehner blocks a shot by Alexandria’s Adrianne Wensman during the Eagle Invitational volleyball tournament in Apple Valley. The No. 1-ranked Panthers won the 15-team event and remained undefeated this season. Photo by Rick Orndorf

Coming to Lakeville North, a school with state volleyball championship aspirations, could create a lot of pressure for a newcomer.

Erica Handley, the Panthers’ new setter, doesn’t look at it that way. If anything, she said, the opposite is true.

“On this team, there are a lot of great players and a lot of girls who can hit,” Handley said. “There’s not so much pressure on one player.”

Handley, a senior, was an All-State player at Class 1A Win-E-Mac last season. She then moved to Lakeville and has been attending Lakeville North High School since January.

She helped lead the Panthers to first place at the Eagle Invitational last weekend at Apple Valley High School. No. 1-ranked Lakeville North (14-0) beat Wayzata 25-18, 25-21 in the championship match.

On its way to the title, North beat Marshall, the top-ranked team in Class 2A, and exacted a small measure of revenge against Eden Prairie, the team that beat the Panthers in five sets in the state Class 3A championship match last season. Lakeville North and Eden Prairie met again in the Eagle Invitational semifinals, and North won 25-21, 21-25, 15-11.

It was in the first game against Eden Prairie that North faced – and passed – a character test.

“We were down 8-1 in the first game,” Handley said. “Then we went on a seven-point run, came back and won the game.”

“That’s a pretty good indication of this team’s toughness,” North coach Walt Weaver said.

The Eagle Invitational is regarded as the state’s top regular-season tournament. The event, in its 35th year, attracted the No. 1-ranked team in each of the state’s three enrollment classes and six of the top eight in Class 3A.

“It was a great weekend,” Handley said. “We had fun and we won the tournament, which is what we wanted to do.”

Even though Weaver lives in Lakeville, returning to the Apple Valley High School gym was something of a homecoming. He coached volleyball at Apple Valley for 31 years before retiring in 2006. He not only founded Apple Valley’s program, but the Eagle Invitational as well.

In all of Weaver’s years at Apple Valley, his teams won the ultra-competitive Eagle Invitational only once. But then he won it in his first attempt as Lakeville North’s coach.

“Obviously no one’s going to question the amount of talent on our team,” he said. “This is a talented, experienced team that’s hard to play against. But we can still improve, and teams like Wayzata, Eden Prairie, Marshall and Eagan can challenge us.”

Junior outside hitter Alyssa Goehner, the Panthers’ top player, had 18 kills in the two games against Wayzata. Hailey Lonergan, a senior middle hitter, had four kills.

Senior Laura Larson and junior Abby Monson kept the Panthers organized on defense. “Those two are exceptionally talented in the back row, and really in every aspect of the game,” Weaver said.

How did Handley fit in with that veteran group?

“Perfectly,” Weaver said. “She’s been in the school for a while now and has worked out with our players. There’s never been an issue with that.”

The Panthers swept Shakopee 25-17, 25-13, 25-20 in a non-conference match Monday night and returned to South Suburban Conference play Thursday at home against Eastview. North entered the week tied with Eagan for first in the SSC at 4-0. Lakeville North will play at Eagan on Oct. 16.

Mader back on North bench

Milan Mader retired in the summer of 2011 after 35 years as head volleyball coach at Lakeville North, but he didn’t stay away from the Panthers’ bench for long. He’s back this season at Weaver’s request. Mader is a part-time volunteer assistant coach.

“(Weaver) asked me, and I told him I’d be honored to come back,” said Mader, who coached the Panthers to the state Class 3A championship in 2010. He has a granddaughter playing ninth-grade volleyball at Lakeville South. He is attending North’s home matches and as many others as his schedule permits.

“He not only built this program for 35 years, he’s coached an Olympian and more Division I regular players than I can count on two hands,” Weaver said. “And, he knows the school. Milan has a lot to offer.”