Strong competition attracts teams to Eagle Invitational

Top five Class AAA volleyball teams will play this weekend

Taylr McNeil (5) of Eagan is one of the top players competing in the Eagle Invitational volleyball tournament this weekend. Photo by Rick Orndorf
Taylr McNeil (5) of Eagan is one of the top players competing in the Eagle Invitational volleyball tournament this weekend. Photo by Rick Orndorf

Eagan has been in the Eagle Invitational volleyball tournament every year since 1998, but Wildcats coach Kathy Gillen-Melville said she has few good memories about it.

That has nothing to do with the way the tournament is run and everything to do with how Eagan has played, she added.

“We’ve never done well in that tournament,” she said. “Never won it, although we’ve been in the championship match. We’ve had years where we won the state championship (2001, 2003) and didn’t win that tournament.”

So why do the Wildcats keep going back? Because it’s the best opportunity they’ll get all season to play a lot of high-caliber competition in one place, at one time. Sixteen of the state’s top teams will come to Apple Valley High School for the tournament Friday and Saturday.

Apple Valley assistant coach Jeff Groves, the Eagle Invitational tournament director, works months in advance on the tournament field, analyzing teams that might have strong returning groups of players. This year’s Eagle Invitational field includes the top five teams in the state Class AAA rankings (Chaska, Lakeville North, Eagan, Hopkins and Blaine), the top-ranked team in Class AA (Marshall) and the defending state Class A champion (Bethlehem Academy). Lakeville North, the defending Class AAA champion, will defend its title at the Eagle Invitational.

Eagan, which was 10-0 after sweeping Bloomington Jefferson in a South Suburban Conference match Tuesday night, might have a chance to break its jinx at the Eagle Invitational. Senior captain Taylr McNeil is a focal point for the Wildcats as one of the state’s top hitters.

Gillen-Melville also described McNeil as one of the state’s best back-row players. “We don’t take her off the court,” the coach said.

Through 10 matches, the Wildcats have shown they’re a strong all-around team. “We’ve been looking for more balance, and we’re getting it,” Gillen-Melville said. “Our middles (senior captain Celia Bertsch and junior Callie Schapehahm) have done a really good job.”

Eagan also is getting quality setting from two players – junior Madeline McNeil (Taylr’s sister) and ninth-grader Brie Orr.

The Wildcats defeated Bethlehem Academy 25-10, 25-15 in the championship match of the Shakopee Invitational. They also opened South Suburban Conference play last week with a four-set victory over an improving Rosemount team.

Chaska is ranked first in Class AAA after defeating Lakeville North in the championship match of the Southwest Minnesota Challenge in Marshall. North (10-1) is led by Alyssa Goehner, possibly the state’s best all-around player, and defensive specialist Abby Monson.

Apple Valley, the host team, is 5-5 under new head coach Heather LaChapelle, who played for Gillen-Melville at Eagan High School. The Eagles finished fifth at the Aerie Challenge in their home gymnasium two weeks ago.

Also in this year’s Eagle Invitational field is Lakeville South, led by junior setter Jade Tingelhoff. The Cougars were 6-6 in their first 12 matches.

Eagle Invitational pool play starts at 5 p.m. Friday. The championship match is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Saturday.