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Doug Wolter: The best find a way to win in volleyball

It’s still early, as the cliché goes, but in assessing the area high school volleyball field the way things set up now, it’s safe to say that some of the best teams in 2012 are some of the best teams in 2013.

Every year, good players graduate. And coaches remind us about how they’ll be younger and more inexperienced. But the top programs seem to find ways to stay at the top — or, at least, stay in the picture.

That’s how it looks today. Defending state champion Marshall, the top-ranked team in Class AA this week, showed that it can be beaten. Thing was, the team it lost to in its own Southwest Minnesota Challenge tournament was this week’s No. 2 Class AAA team, Lakeville North (25-18, 25-20).

Jackson County Central head coach Teresa Van Epps, whose Huskies are themselves a solid outfit, says the Tigers are again deserving of their lofty ranking. “Their passing is phenomenal. They’re spot-on,” Van Epps said Monday.

As for the other usual suspects for greatness in southwest Minnesota, many of the same teams tend to come up in conversation. There are the Huskies, of course. And there is a third dangerous Southwest Conference team, Windom Area. Defending Red Rock Conference champ Edgerton Southwest Christian, another of those outfits reloading from key graduation losses, has picked up right where it left off last year and sits atop the state’s Class A rankings.

Westbrook-Walnut Grove, which finished second to SWC in the Red Rock Conference last fall, is anxious to climb to the top. Still struggling to get healthy as three starters heal from injuries, the Chargers are looking more formidable after going 5-0 in their own weekend tournament without dropping a game.

Then there’s that strong Tracy-Milroy-Balaton team from the Camden Conference. And there’s that talented club from Southwestern United. And a fine Martin County West team from farther east. Where do we stop?

Teams could take a bit of advice from Van Epps, who reminds her players that even setbacks are learning experiences, and if the proper attention is paid to them, better things can result. JCC was 3-0 heading into a tournament in Shakopee on Saturday, where it went 2-2 — placing fifth — while losing a tight match to Eagan (the Huskies beat Anoka and Shakopee and also lost to Rochester Mayo).

The Eagan match was a “wake-up call,” Van Epps said. “We should’ve taken second in our pool.”

With juniors Kaylee Burmeister and Kathryn Nasby holding up the defense and Burmeister taking control on the outside, Jackson County Central figures only to get better.

“We’re solid. I’ll be honest, I was wondering what I’ve got this year. But they’re doing very well,” Van Epps says about her squad, the No. 7-ranked team in AA. “The only thing that’s different this year is the experience.”

Look out, rivals. The Huskies mentor has already discovered that her “athletic but young” team learns its lessons very fast.

Van Epps warns that all regional rivals should also look out for Martin County West, a Class A team JCC scrimmaged in the summer. “They’re quick and they’ve got a nice middle attack,” she says. “That’ll be a nice battle between Windom and Martin County West” in the section tournament, she predicts.

Sometimes teams just need a little time to bake. Westbrook-Walnut Grove may be one of those.

Three Charger starters have missed time due to injuries so far this season, but that has only meant that more inexperienced players have been granted valuable playing time. On Saturday, W-WG, which is 6-2 having lost only to Murray County Central and T-M-B, looked strong in its own tourney. And the Chargers should only get better.

“Everybody’s kind of healing. There’s still some healing left to do,” coach Cathy Baumann said Monday. “I feel like our team is finally starting to gel. … It’s also nice that we’ve got a pretty deep team and we can pull from different places.”

Today, as W-WG hosts Springfield, sophomore Abby Herding could surpass the 1,000-point mark for set assists. Yes, Herding is only a sophomore. She played some as an eighth grader and started for the first time as a freshman as the Chargers —led by first-team Daily Globe All-Area selection Dayna Comnick —put up a bunch of strong hitters for her to set the table for.

Baumann describes Herding as very athletic, and “a scrambler.” I’m not absolutely certain what a scrambler does, but it may have something to do with the fact that Herding has been on the gym floor since the age of 4. She was of that age when she saw her first volleyball camp.

By the way, don’t overlook that Southwestern United team and its outstanding junior middle hitter Courtney Place, who is closing in on her own milestone. Place is just four kills away from 1,000 and should get it tonight at home against Pipestone Area.

With some teams, all you need to do is give them a little time. That may be the prescription for Windom Area, which had what coach Ron Wendorff said was a “rough day” Saturday in Mankato, where the Eagles split with Mankato East, lost to Sibley East and beat Cedar Mountain-Comfrey. Two potentially fine Windom Area players chose not to compete in volleyball this year due to injury concerns and another, 6-0 middle hitter Michaela Hacker, has yet to play this year due to knee issues.

On Monday, Hacker was able to have her first real practice with the team. When she returns to the lineup, Windom’s middle will be that much stronger. Until then, Wendorff says his squad has a lot of work to do to improve.

“We are really an up-and-down kind of team right now. The only thing we’re consistent at is at being inconsistent. We just need to work through that,” Wendorff said.

There’s still plenty of time. The best teams tend to bring it when it counts. It’s going to be fun finding out which teams get their issues sorted out the best.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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