Wildcats have talent, are building togetherness

Volleyball team seeks 3rd consecutive state championship

Ellie Husemann tips the ball over the net during a recent Eagan volleyball practice as two Wildcat assistant coaches serve as blockers. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

In a volleyball hotbed such as Minnesota has become, no team – not even two-time defending state large-school champion Eagan – can corner the market on talent.

And yet the Wildcats have been in the state championship match the last four years, winning three times. What makes them different?

The Wildcats’ three senior captains for 2017 – McKenna Melville, Anne Wong and Ally Murphy – say it’s chemistry, and specifically the willingness to set aside egos.

“You run into some teams where you can tell they butt heads on the court,” Murphy said. “I feel like skill can get you to a certain point, but after that it’s attitude.”

In the winter, spring and summer, high school players disperse to club teams at various age levels. In the fall, the challenge for high school coaches is to get players from different club backgrounds functioning as a team.

“They come from so many different systems that it takes us a good couple of weeks just to figure out what our system is so the girls aren’t running into each other,” said Eagan coach Kathy Gillen, whose teams have won seven state championships. “They need to know what to expect from who’s standing next to them. My main goal in the next week to week and a half is to get our chemistry on target so we can move forward and not worry about little things.”

Before classes start Sept. 5, it’s “all about volleyball. There’s not a whole bunch going on outside of volleyball,” Melville said. “We’re hanging out with each other for the next two weeks, basically.”

Building chemistry was easier last year when the Wildcats returned all six starters from a state championship team. It’s a little different this year with a couple of spots to be filled by new players.

“The players in this program already have the work ethic we need,” Wong said. “If they get nervous at the end of a drill, it’s up to us as captains to show them the way. We’re not there yet, but every practice we’re getting a little better.”

The Wildcats’ only loss in 32 matches last season was against Champlin Park in a tournament at the end of the regular season. That seemed to only inspire Eagan, which lost only one set the rest of the year (to Champlin Park in the state Class 3A final, which the Wildcats won in four sets).

“We have some returning kids who are mentally tough from what they experienced last year,” Gillen said. “That’s a nice piece that carried through to this year. Hopefully they’ll help the young kids create the same thing.”

One thing that made last year’s Wildcats particularly tough was an Orr in each row. Brie Orr, now at the University of Iowa, was a dynamic hitter as well as one of the Wildcats’ best setters. When Brie was in the front row her sister Kennedi, who will be a ninth-grader this fall, worked the back row. In the state championship match against Champlin Park the sisters combined for 30 kills and 37 assists.

“They’re very different people. They have different personalities, different strengths,” Gillen said of the Orr sisters. “Kennedi is a stronger setter. Brie had more experience. Kennedi now has that experience as well.”

Kennedi Orr, and anyone else who sets for Eagan, will have no shortage of options. Melville, an outside hitter who has committed to Central Florida, is one of the state’s most versatile players. She had 11 kills and 23 digs in the state championship match and usually is the player the Wildcats want receiving serve.

Two Division I-bound players, Ellie Husemann (Minnesota) and McKenna Melville (Central Florida), will try to help Eagan return to the state volleyball tournament. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

Wong had eight kills in a three-set blowout of Lakeville South in last year’s state semifinals. Murphy is a veteran of two state championship teams.

In the middle, the Wildcats have 6-foot-2 junior Ellie Husemann, who already has been offered a scholarship by the University of Minnesota. Husemann had nine block assists in the state championship match against Champlin Park.

“We may not run the same offense, but I think we’re going to have a pretty powerful offense,” Gillen said. “It may look a little different, but we have some pretty good setters around here.”

In their championship seasons, the Wildcats often separated themselves from their closest competitors by being strong on defense – not only blocking at the net but picking up balls that get past the blockers. With the season opener coming up at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Minneapolis Southwest, how is the Wildcats defense?

“Well … we’re still working a lot on blocking,” Murphy said with a chuckle.

“We have the potential to have a very good defense. We have great leadership and some great hustlers,” Gillen said. “It comes down to the muscle memory, the drills and the practice, and making it second nature for them to go get that ball.”

The Wildcats, not surprisingly, are first in the state Class 3A preseason rankings. It’s worth noting the top three teams all play in the South Suburban Conference; Prior Lake opens the season at No. 2 and Lakeville North is third. Prior Lake was runner-up to Eagan in the 2015 state Class 3A final and also made the state tournament last year. Lakeville North returns the top eight players from a team that finished second in last year’s Section 1 tournament.

Eagan’s captains say they have learned it’s better to think about how they need to improve than about what the competition is doing. “We won’t even look at our first (opponent) until the night of the match,” Melville said.

The captains added that they’re hoping to go out with another state championship but could deal with not winning it if they played well and lost to a team that played better. But there’s one scenario they want to avoid at all costs.

“I don’t want to walk away from a loss knowing I didn’t give it my all,” Melville said.