For four consecutive years, the Belle Plaine High School volleyball team qualified for the state tournament but failed to win a state championship.
But last season in the Class 2A title match, the Tigers defeated Concordia Academy, with the match point coming from their premier hitter, Mariena Hayden, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee on the point prior.
“I heard a pop and knew it wasn’t good.” Hayden said of the moment. “But I didn’t come out because I had been working my entire life for that, and I didn’t care. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Hayden’s grit helped Belle Plaine and then-coach Cassie Koch win the school’s first volleyball championship. After the season, Koch, a Tigers volleyball legend herself, stepped down to focus on family.
For much of the offseason, the program’s new leader was unknown.
Securing a successor meant finding someone who could take on the time commitment of coaching a team with four returning seniors, poised to make another state tournament run.
Eventually two school colleagues, familiar with one another’s styles from previously coaching together, decided they could co-coach the Tigers.
Rich Foust, in his 27th year teaching in Belle Plaine and a former head volleyball coach there, and Sara Geller, a physical education teacher for over a decade, now share the job.
The duo inherited a special weapon in Hayden. The 6-1 senior, with over 1,860 career kills, enters her fifth year as a starter. Her surgically repaired left knee is healthy, and she is ready to pursue another state championship.
“[Hayden] has battled back and rehabbed her knee,” Geller said. “At first she was a little hesitant but now realizes that her knee is going to hold, and she’s stronger now.”
Behind Hayden is senior all-conference setter Danielle Taylor, who Foust calls the team’s “quarterback.” Taylor, who recorded 865 set assists last year and is nearing 2,000 for her career, controls the flow of the Tigers’ offense and often decides when Hayden’s next kill will come.
Though it would be easy to repeatedly set an outside hitter with the leaping and striking ability of Hayden, Foust said it is a credit to Taylor’s volleyball IQ that she spreads the ball and keeps defenses guessing.
“She does a good job of moving the ball around and not forcing things,” Foust said. “It helps us develop other hitters, but she knows when we need to go to Mariena and does that well.”
Fellow seniors Elizabeth Johnson, a libero who Foust calls the team’s most vocal personality, and Taylor Kruger, a second-year starter, join Hayden and Taylor as captains.
Foust said he counts on the team’s seniors to prepare the Tigers inexperienced freshmen and sophomores as the season continues.
Belle Plaine (4-0 heading into Thursday’s match) hasn’t dropped a set yet, but he’s seen some of the younger players’ nerves surface on the varsity floor.
Foust hopes come section tournament time that the underclassmen’s doubt is replaced with confidence, instilled from the swagger of a senior class of state champions. The Tigers will face strong competition in Section 2 from Kenyon-Wanamingo, ranked No. 1 in the state, according to the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association. Belle Plaine is ranked No. 3.
“I want the younger girls on the team to experience a title,” Hayden said. “It’s senior year. Let’s go out with a bang and go home with another title to make it icing on the cake.”