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Hockey, shmockey. Minnesota has become a volleyball hotbed

Minnesota may not be the cradle of the sport — California rightly claims that. But it has become an epicenter of talent, with a vibrant club system that develops a ton of good players. 

The Midwest Volleyball Warehouse is located in Burnsville at the intersection of County Road 42 and Judicial Road.
Courtesy of Northern Lights

A medium-sized jet could fit inside the Midwest Volleyball Warehouse, just off County Road 42 in Burnsville. Eight full-sized volleyball courts run side-by-side the length of the 80,000 square foot building, with room on one side for bleachers, and an expansive viewing level above them. The strength and conditioning room alone runs 5,000 square feet. The parking lot holds more than 450 cars, and on most tournament days that’s still not enough.

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This is the home of Northern Lights Juniors, the largest and best-known girls Junior Olympic volleyball club in Minnesota. Autographed posters from dozens of Northern Lights alumni who played in college and internationally cover the two-story wall in the conditioning room. Displays elsewhere honor alums with Team USA, like 2004 Olympian Wiz Bachman, and the University of Minnesota. The Gophers display needs updating. “We’re behind,” said club co-director Adam Beamer. “We don’t have enough space.”

Minnesota may not be the cradle of volleyball — California rightly claims that. But it has become one of its hotbeds, and has been for some time, with a vibrant club system that develops a ton of good players who stock some of the country’s top college programs.

And the numbers are growing.

USA Volleyball’s North Country Region, encompassing Minnesota, the Dakotas and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, ranks third nationally in participation, region executive director Judy Praska said. Minnesota alone has 290 junior clubs with about 15,000 girls participating.

2016 University of Minnesota women's volleyball
Christopher Mitchell/University of Minnesota
The 2016 University of Minnesota women’s volleyball team shown during a game against Toledo at the Sports Pavilion.

Last year the three top Twin Cities junior clubs — Northern Lights, Minnesota Select and Minnesota One (known as M1) — sent 63 girls to college programs, from Division 1 to N.A.I.A. Northern Lights alone had 37, with 14 going Division I. Five Northern Lights standouts were part of the University of Minnesota teams that reached back-to-back Final Fours in 2015-16: 2016 ESPNW national player of the year Sarah Wilhite, twins Hannah and Paige Tapp, Molly Lohman and Samantha Seliger-Swenson.

All ten players on Minnesota Select’s top 18-year-old team last season signed or verbally committed to college programs. Seven went D1, with Prior Lake’s CC McGraw choosing the Gophers, and three to eight-time Division II national champion Concordia University in St. Paul. Smaller clubs in the metro and outstate contribute another 20 to 30 collegians annually, mostly D2 and D3 and a few D1s.

For Minnesota Coach Hugh McCutcheon, who recruits nationally, that depth means fewer weekends on the road and more time with his wife (Bachman, coincidently) and their two children. And it allows in-state coaches with minuscule recruiting budgets, like Concordia’s Brady Starkey and Thanh Pham of D3 St. Thomas, to field nationally-ranked teams. Both got their starts coaching with M1. All seven Minnesota institutions ranked in the national D2 and D3 polls feature former Minnesota club players prominently.

Outside Hitter Jasmyn Martin and U of M teammates
Eric Miller/University of Minnesota
Outside Hitter Jasmyn Martin, center, and U of M teammates during a game against Illinois on Oct. 25 at the Sports Pavilion.

“The root of it is all the club training you have,” said Doug Bergman, M1’s founder, program director and longest-serving coach. “There are some great coaches. And I don’t feel like we’re competitors. I feel like we’ll all teaching these kids to become better athletes. It’s not so much about our club egos and if we’re winning or losing. It’s about developing these kids. That’s why the game is getting so good in the Upper Midwest.”

Club volleyball runs for five to seven months after the fall scholastic season, and it’s not cheap. At the major clubs, fees range from about $2,000 per season for the youngest players (ages 11 and 12) to more than $5,000 for 18s. Travel to out-of-state tournaments is usually extra. Many clubs offer fund-raising or job opportunities to help defray costs.

“I don’t think 100 percent of it is, ‘I need to play there to get my daughter a scholarship,’” said Beamer. “A lot of it nowadays is, they just want to have their kid involved in something.

The Concordia University Golden Bears at practice on Nov. 2.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The Concordia University Golden Bears at practice on Nov. 2.

“We have kids who love volleyball and just want to come down here and play. Then they get to their sophomore and junior year and decide, ‘I’m not going to play in college and I’m done.’ But it’s a huge benefit for parents to get their kids involved in something that they love. And they’re willing to pay the money.”

Club volleyball stayed small and local until 1988, when the Minnesota State High School League (M.S.H.S.L.) permitted athletes to play for amateur clubs out of season. “That’s when it really jumped,” Beamer said. Bergman and Curt Glesmann founded Northern Lights in 1993, with Beamer joining them the following year. Bergman remained until 1998, when he left to start M1 in Bloomington. (Beamer and Bergman had been men’s club volleyball teammates at Minnesota.) Scott Jackson, the varsity coach at Wayzata High, founded Maple Grove-based Minnesota Select in 2004. And other clubs soon sprung up across the state: Southwest Minnesota Juniors, Crossfire, Vital, Club Tonka, Kokoro, Minnesota North, Kandi Elite, Southern Minnesota Volleyball.

But Northern Lights remains the leader. Its squads claimed 27 national championships in the last 13 years, and it hosts major tournaments at the Minneapolis Convention Center and in Burnsville that attract hundreds of teams nationwide. From a modest start — five teams and 60 girls — last year Northern Lights sponsored 31 teams for more than 300 girls. Three of those teams won U.S. Junior or AAU national titles.

“You can see the changes over the last 20 years,” said Pham, who coached the Tommies to 12 NCAA Tournaments in 15 seasons and the 2012 national D3 title. “I feel like now, the athletes see so much more and there’s so much training going on that coaching has to be at a premium. Back then, if you were athletic, you were probably on the (club’s) No. 1 team. Now you have to be athletic and a good volleyball player.”

Starkey assisted Geoff Carlston, now at Ohio State, from 2000-02, taking a team from 0-18 in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play in 1999 to its first national ranking in 2002. Since Starkey succeeded Carlston in 2003, Concordia has qualified for the NCAA Tournament so many times (every season, actually) that the Gangelhoff Center banner listing its appearances ran out of room in 2014. Eight NCAA championship banners hang in the rafters, and the top-ranked Golden Bears (26-2) are angling for another.

Women's volleyball championship banners adorn the court
MinnPost photos by Corey Anderson
Women’s volleyball championship banners adorn the court at Gangelhoff Center on the campus of Concordia University in St. Paul.

At fifth-ranked Minnesota (24-2), freshman outside hitter Jasmyn Martin of Hopkins played with Minnesota Select, M1 and Northern Lights before returning to Select for her final club season. (Her family moved from Bloomington before her freshman year of high school.) She remembers being petrified at her first Select tryout, at age 12, joining several hundred hopefuls.

“I actually went to a Gopher volleyball game and was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that,’” she said. “So my mom was like, ‘We’ll get you in a tryout.’ I went to a few camps but had never played on an actual team.” To her surprise, she made it — benefiting, she believed, from being tall for her age at 5-foot-8.

Martin credits her coach at Hopkins High School, Vicki Seliger-Swenson — the mother of Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the Gophers All-American setter — for letting her play all six positions on the court, instead of substituting a defensive specialist when she rotated to the back line. “That’s kind of what gave me my base,” she said.

But club play got her noticed. Her final year at Minnesota Select, Martin, now 6-foot-3, played alongside five other Division I prospects — Jenny Mosser (now at UCLA), Sydney Hilley (Wisconsin), Brynn Carlson (Kansas State) Tina Boe (Denver) and McGraw, the future Gopher.

“It helped me because I was around so many other good players,” Martin said.