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Eagles look for quick start against Warriors

WORTHINGTON -- Even with early morning practices this week, the Windom Eagles have plenty to be thankful for.

"That was one of the things that we talked about was that there aren't a lot of schools practicing this morning and we're probably the only one practicing at 7 o'clock in the morning," Windom head coach Ron Wendorff said. "We talked about being grateful for being in the tournament and that we're still playing."

The Eagles defeated the defending state champions, Minneota, in the Section 3A finals Saturday, and will face Wheaton at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to open their tournament run.

While Windom (29-2) qualified for the state tournament for the first time in seven years, their opponent is making its second straight appearance.

Last season, the Warriors (20-5-1) finished sixth, while winning just one match.

After facing tough opposition last season, the draw is once again tough for the Warriors, as Windom enters as the No. 1 team in Class A.

"It's going to be a tough haul," Wheaton head coach Darla Thiel said. "They're the No. 1 team in the state, and we upset the No. 4 team (Ada-Borup). How many people believed that we could have beat them?

"Last year, we were in the state tournament too, and we got Bethlehem Academy," Thiel added. "I think they were rated two in the state, so we're not getting very good luck of the draw here."

Wheaton defeated Ada-Borup in the Section 6A finals to advance to state.

"I think Ada-Borup was the favorite there, but they beat them in a five-game match," Wendorff said. "So they must be pretty tough, and mentally tough to come out in a five-game match like that."

With Ada-Borup needing only one more point in Game 5 to close out the match, Wheaton battled back.

"Both teams played extremely well. When our team was down 14-11 in that fifth game, it was like, 'oh great.' They just never gave up, and one point at a time it ended up 19-17," Thiel said. "It was an unbelievable night. It was probably the best volleyball match that I've been involved with."

After a knee injury to one of the Warriors' best players, Wheaton got off to a slow start to the season.

"We have been hampered with early serious injuries," Thiel said. "One girl came back, and the other didn't. The one that came back has been a spark to our team. We struggled early on because she wasn't in the lineup. She's a four-year starter, and she's back in the lineup now."

Whitney Boom has returned to the lineup at an outside hitter position, and has 79 kills and 13 blocks on her injury-shortened season.

"Whitney Boom is one of their better players, and she's an outside hitter," Wendorff said. "She's coming back from MCL surgery, but she's still one of their top players."

Another top player for Wheaton is Sarah Hoppe, a 6-1 middle.

Hoppe leads the team with 208 kills and 91 blocks on the season.

"She's comparative the size from the (Emily) Bose girl from MCC, and she gave us some trouble early in the match, but I thought as the match wore on, we were able to handle her better," Wendorff said. "That's what we're going to have to look for out of Casey (Christensen) and know that she's going to have to do a good job on her when she's in the front row."

Christensen, a 6-1 middle herself, leads Windom with 244 kills and 103 blocks. She will match up with Hoppe on two of the three rotations.

"We like the fact that our best middle is going against their tallest middle, and we'll take our chances with Casey," Wendorff said. "We'll look for Casey to shut her down, or at least block a gap and force this girl to hit it in our defense."

However, the offense of Wheaton is more than just Hoppe and Boom.

"I would say that we have a balanced attack, and a balanced front line," Thiel said.

Nicole Thiel is second on the team with 191 kills and also had 63 blocks. However, one of her best attributes is her serving accuracy.

"Nicole Thiel has only missed three serves all year, and I think that's kind of amazing," Darla Thiel said. "Her and Sarah Hoppe, I'm the most comfortable when they're back there serving."

Nicole Thiel, who was selected as a member of the 2006 All-Tournament team, has 17 aces on the season, while Hoppe has 28. Julie Blume, listed as a setter, leads the Warriors with 45 aces, and is also second on the team with 71 blocks.

Wheaton brings a senior-dominated group, with many players returning from a year ago.

"We have a lot of seniors, and they truly believe that no one can beat them," Darla Thiel said. "Just that mental toughness and the momentum and the spark of Whitney Boom coming back, I think we're peaking right now, and that's to our advantage."

For Windom, the key will be putting pressure on the other team with aggressive serves, solid serve receive and a balanced attack at the net.

"I think at this point, at least at this point in the tournament, we're going to go in and worry that we're taking care of business on our side of the net," Wendorff said. "Winning volleyball is putting pressure on the other team and taking advantage of the mistakes they might make."

Along with Christensen, Windom will look to Megan Ysker (225 kills), Amy Robinson (205 kills), Malori Paplow (192 kills) and Courtney Ysker (121 kills) to lead the offensive attack.

With so many threats for the Eagles, defense will be a key for Wheaton.

"Defense will wear down a team," Darla Thiel said. "When you have a team that's offensively driven, if you keep picking up their stuff and scrapping away, you are going to wear them out and frustrate them because they're not used to that."

The two teams have played just one common opponent this season -- Tracy-Milroy-Balaton.

Wheaton lost to T-M-B at an early-season tournament, while Windom swept T-M-B in the first match of its season.

As the Eagles prepare for what they hope is a state championship run, Wendorff said the team is taking it one match at a time.

"We're going up there to do our very best and try to win as many games as possible," Wendorff said. "If luck is with us, we'll get that win on Thursday and get into the semifinals on Friday."

Windom will play either Chrisholm or Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop Friday, depending on the outcome of the two matches.