Northern Lights team can claim to be nation’s best

15-1 squad wins 2 major tournaments

Northern Lights players celebrate after winning the 15 Open Division championship at the USA Volleyball Junior National tournament in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Northern Lights Volleyball Club
Northern Lights players celebrate after winning the 15 Open Division championship at the USA Volleyball Junior National tournament in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Northern Lights Volleyball Club

Winning Open Division championships at the country’s two biggest youth national volleyball tournaments is rare, even for clubs that are accustomed to contending for national titles.

Northern Lights’ 15-1 team accomplished that elusive double over the last several weeks, winning the 15-and-under titles at the AAU National Championships in Orlando, Fla., and the U.S. Junior National Championships in Minneapolis.

Walt Weaver, head coach of the 15-1 team and a longtime coach at Northern Lights, said he could recall that happening only one other time at the club. “And that team had two players who are on the national team now, (Lauren) Gibbemeyer and (Tori) Dixon,” Weaver added.

If a team competes in the Open Division at the two national tournaments, it will face the best teams in the country in its age group. By winning the AAU and U.S. Junior National tourneys, Weaver said there is little doubt where the Northern Lights 15-1 team stands nationally.

“This team can legitimately claim to be No. 1 in the country,” the coach said. “No one can say, ‘You didn’t play in that tournament,’ or ‘You didn’t have to face that team.’ ”

Northern Lights went 9-1 in pool and playoff matches in the 15 Open Division at the U.S. Junior Nationals. Along the way, it beat a team from St. Louis that had taken an undefeated record into nationals. Five of the matches (including Northern Lights’ only loss) went to three sets in a best-of-three format. In the championship match of the Gold playoff bracket, Northern Lights defeated Aspire Rox of Arizona 25-18, 21-25, 15-11.

The Northern Lights roster had four players from the Sun Thisweek and Dakota County Tribune coverage area – Brie Orr of Eagan High School, Makenzie Hesse of Farmington High School, and Halle Johnston and Jennifer Mosser, both of Lakeville South.

Most of the players have been Northern Lights club members for several years. All 10 players on the 15-1 team have the potential to play in college – Weaver said numerous Division I coaches watched his team’s games. Many of them willingly accepted reduced roles to be part of this team, Weaver said.

“You could put 10 kids with that type of ability on the court, and they wouldn’t necessarily do what this team has done,” Weaver said.

Orr, a starter for Eagan High School’s 2013 state Class 3A volleyball champions, was MVP in the 15 Open Division at the U.S. Junior Nationals. She also made what was likely the play of the tournament by recording a kill with her left foot in a playoff match against St. Louis CYC.

Orr dug a kill attempt by a St. Louis player but the ball drifted toward the side of the court, forcing Northern Lights’ Taylor Wolf to dive to keep it in play. The ball came back to Orr at about knee height. Instinctively, she stuck out her left foot and kicked it – a legal contact in volleyball. The ball sailed over the net and landed on the other side without being touched. A video of the play posted on You Tube has received more than 5,000 views.

“The St. Louis team never really recovered from that,” Weaver said. “We ended up having to call a timeout to wait for the crowd to settle down.”

Weaver described Orr as “a tremendously gifted athlete. In my opinion, she’s one of the top jump-setters in the nation. She’s a good setter, an excellent hitter and an excellent defensive player.”

Hesse is “one of our strongest all-around players,” Weaver said. “She’s not a big kid, and at the level we’re playing, we see a lot of big kids. But she’s the type who’s going to win wherever she plays.”

Weaver said Mosser is one of the best leapers he’s seen. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a 35-inch vertical,” he said. “She played middle for us, and the question in the future is if she’ll play middle or outside. I think she was the most dynamic middle in the country in her age group.”

Johnston, a libero and defensive specialist, was MVP of the 15 Open Division at the AAU championships. “I can’t recall in my life a libero being named MVP of a tournament like that,” Weaver said. “But everybody knew she was going to get it. She played that well.”

Wolf, who helped set up Orr’s You Tube moment, is from Waconia High School. Also playing for the Northern Lights 15-1 team were Erin Fallert of Concordia Academy, April Houston of Minneapolis Southwest, Breanna Maloney of Roseville, Claire Sheehan of Cambridge-Isanti and Jasmyn Martin of Hopkins North Middle School.

Martin, who’s already 6 feet, 3 inches, could become one of the nation’s most highly recruited volleyball and basketball players. Martin couldn’t practice regularly with her Northern Lights team during the winter because she was playing varsity basketball at Hopkins High School. She then was slowed by an injury but recovered well enough to be named to the all-tournament team at the U.S. Junior Nationals.

Weaver, former head volleyball coach at Apple Valley and Lakeville North high schools, was assisted by former Armstrong head coach and Lakeville North assistant Steve Getchell and Northern Lights club director Curt Glesmann.

Most of the players are likely to stay together on a 16-and-under Northern Lights team in the 2014-15 club season, Weaver said, but rosters and coaching assignments won’t be finalized until fall.

Northern Lights, which operates out of Midwest Volleyball Warehouse in Burnsville, sent 30 teams to the U.S. Junior Nationals. In addition to the 15-1 team’s championship, the 13-1 and 16-1 teams placed third in Open Division competition.

Eleven Northern Lights teams finished in the top three at the AAU nationals, including division championships won by the 15-1, 15-2, 16-2 and 17-1 teams.