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College volleyball: Improved Lady Jays are energized

WORTHINGTON -- The debut of the 2017 Minnesota West volleyball team was dramatic. Fans settled into their places at the Center for Health and Wellness gym expecting a loss at the hands of the Rochester Yellowjackets.

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Minnesota West volleyball players Micheine Morales (8) and Emma Woelber (right) participate in a tip drill during practice this week. The Lady Jays are exciting local fans with their excellent play early in the 2017 season. (Doug Wolter/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- The debut of the 2017 Minnesota West volleyball team was dramatic. Fans settled into their places at the Center for Health and Wellness gym expecting a loss at the hands of the Rochester Yellowjackets.

And who could blame them? The Lady Jays hardly ever beat the Yellowjackets.

Slowly, perhaps, it began to dawn on the home crowd: This is not your typical Minnesota West team. After losing the first two games of the match, the Jays fought back to win the next three and gain a victory.

The win was an energizer, say the Lady Jays. As of this moment, they are 3-1 on the season and believe they can win every challenge.

“I think that (Rochester) win gave us all confidence,” said second-year player Katherin Ihnen. “Like, ‘Wow, we can really do something good this year. For me, it makes me look forward to every game because I know what we’re capable of doing.”

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A season ago, the Lady Jays rarely won a match. They didn’t have depth on the front line. They barely had a bench at all.

This year, besides sophomores Ihnen (from Round Lake), Nichole Rowe (Harris, Iowa) and Hannah Neuman (Gibbon) to provide veteran leadership, head coach Marie Johnson’s program features two freshman recruits from Puerto Rico (5-8 outside hitter Joa Ortiz and 5-1 libero Micheine Morales), plus another outstanding area athlete, Andrea Hinkeldey, a Heron Lake-Okabena High School graduate who chose to focus solely on basketball in her freshman year. Add freshmen Michaela Kern (Adrian), Katelyn Walters (Worthington) and Emma Woelber (Westbrook) and the Jays now have a versatile and confident group.

“We’ve gone through seasons where we’ve only won two matches, when we played .500, and when we went to regional matches,” said Johnson. “And this year started out really different.”

Talent plus The Lady Jays were so excited about what they’d done to Rochester in their season opener, said Johnson, “you could probably hear them in the gymnasium, they were so loud in the locker room.”

That kind of enthusiasm is a huge benefit for winning volleyball, and it doesn’t hurt to have a collection of talent, either.

“I think the difference is experience. We’re so much deeper. We have a player for each position, and then we have a player who can fill in the spots,” said Ihnen.

Two of those key players have come a long way to play for the Lady Jays. It was evident from the start that Puerto Ricans Ortiz and Morales are not only talented volleyball players, but their personalities mesh easily with their American teammates.

For Morales, coming to the United States is a dream come true.

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“I was in my room and I saw a post on my Facebook that they were interested in volleyball players here at Minnesota West. I called them and they asked me to send videos of myself playing volleyball,” Morales recalls. “They saw them and asked me to come here, and I was so happy. I wanted to get out of Puerto Rico and experience new things.”

Volleyball is a very popular sport in Puerto Rico.

“Volleyball is what brings Puerto Rico together,” said Morales, who grew up admiring her big sister, who played outside hitter.

Micheine said she always wanted to be like her big sister, but she didn’t grow tall like her big sister did. So she became a libero.

“I love it. The best is that adrenaline when you get the perfect pass. It’s the best,” testified Morales, who is studying liberal arts and psychology at the college and who is happy to report that she was quickly accepted by a “friendly and loving, very welcoming” Minnesota West volleyball team.

There’s probably no one happier than Johnson, who now has an outfit that can compete against some of Minnesota’s best. She oversees an aggressive offense with not one or two, but a variety of strong hitters. Now, the Jays can spread their hitting across the front row. The addition of Hinkeldey adds another tall and strong hitter. Ortiz and Morales, say the coach, “have both played a lot of volleyball and they take it very seriously.” Woelber was a very good setter in high school, and she’s taking that with her to the college level.

“We have tried to focus more on a quick offensive approach more this year,” Johnson said. “Kind of trying more combinations, because the players have pushed for it.”

Indeed, the players are anxious to learn more and to try new things.

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“They’re kind of like, ‘What’s next? We feel comfortable with that, what next can you give us?’” said the veteran coach.

You can’t wipe the smile off Morales’ face when she talks about volleyball, and even more so when she talks about the Rochester match.

“Everybody was telling me, ‘Oh, you guys are gonna lose.’ And when we won, I was so excited because everybody was saying we were going to lose. They didn’t believe in us. But I believed in us, because our team is awesome.”

Minnesota West’s next outing is in Worthington Friday as Riverland comes to town. It’s also Meet the Lady Jays Night and Homecoming night, too.

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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