Rested, refreshed Wildcats defend crown

Eagan is No. 2 in preseason volleyball rankings

Sophomore Brie Orr is one of the Eagan volleyball team's top returning players. File photo
Sophomore Brie Orr is one of the Eagan volleyball team’s top returning players. File photo

There’s a lot of ground to be covered, a lot of chemistry to build and a lot of matches to be won if Eagan is to successfully defend its state Class 3A volleyball championship.

One thing the Wildcats did not do is practice as a team during the summer. Most high school coaches jump on the opportunity to work with their teams in June and July, as the Minnesota State High School League allows, but Eagan coach Kathy Gillen-Melville chose not to bring her team to the gym. She said she did not want to lengthen an already grueling season for her players. Between high school and club seasons, volleyball players can be playing and practicing from mid-August through early July of the following year.

“Some of our kids weren’t done until July 6 this year,” Gillen-Melville said. “I think it’s best to get them off the court for a few weeks. It’s not going to affect their skill level.”

Being rested physically and refreshed mentally figures to be important as the Wildcats chase another state championship. They entered the season No. 2 behind Chaska in the state Class 3A preseason rankings.

The Wildcats, who opened their regular season Tuesday at Minneapolis Southwest, return a talented team. But they have to play differently, especially on offense, following the graduation of Taylr McNeil, one of the state’s most feared hitters and the 2013 Minnesota Gatorade player of the year. She’s a freshman at the University of South Carolina.

“We’re not going to be able to look for Taylr on the outside,” Gillen-Melville said. “We’ll have to do a good job of keeping things balanced, making sure a lot of players are involved in the offense.”

The Wildcats won’t have McNeil, but they’re still likely to have one of the state’s top players. That’s sophomore setter/outside hitter Brie Orr, who had 43 kills and 82 set assists in three matches during last year’s state tournament. She followed that by helping her Northern Lights club team win the 15-and-under open division titles at the AAU national championships and the U.S. Junior National tourney. Orr was named the tournament’s MVP.

Senior middle hitter Callie Schapekahm and sophomore outside hitter Taylor Olstad also played on Northern Lights teams that finished first at the AAU nationals.

Eagan’s senior group also includes Madeline McNeil, who had 62 set assists at state last year; Sarah Jurgens, who saw action at outside hitter at the state tourney; right-side hitter Brooke Olstad; and Alixandra Putman, who might be in line to replace the graduated Kelly Madison as the Wildcats’ defensive specialist.

Sophomore middle hitter Alyssa Doucette has considerable potential, Gillen-Melville said. The coach added that all three ninth-graders on the roster, McKenna Melville, Anne Wong and Ally Murphy, could play significant roles on this year’s team.

“In the early part of the season, the biggest thing you need to work on is team chemistry,” Gillen-Melville said. “All of our kids have good skills. It becomes a matter of knowing who’s going to pick up the ball when it comes over the net. The team we had last year had very good chemistry, but it always takes a few weeks into the season to develop it.”

The coach said she would be happy if the team was settled in after it played in the Shakopee Invitational on Sept. 6. Before then, the Wildcats play at Chanhassen at 7 p.m. Thursday and at home against Stillwater on Tuesday, Sept. 2. The first South Suburban Conference match is Sept. 9 at home against Lakeville North, the team Eagan defeated in last year’s Section 3 championship match.