Kathy Gillen, Eagan's Hall of Fame coach, has spent the season downplaying how she has the best, deepest volleyball team in the state.
After Eagan beat Champlin Park 25-20, 17-25, 25-20, 25-20 Saturday at Xcel Energy Center to win the Class 3A state championship — the Wildcats' third in four years — Gillen allowed herself a chance to exhale.
"We haven't talked about it at all this season, but it's hard to have a target on your back all season," Gillen said. "Next year, with a different group, hopefully the target's gone."
As soon as those words left her mouth, McKenna Melville, Eagan's do-everything outside hitter and Gillen's daughter, shook her head, as if to say it won't get any easier.
The raucous crowd saw a superbly played match befitting a championship. While Eagan has been the consensus No. 1 team all year, Champlin Park and its remarkable outside hitter, Sydney Hilley, emerged as the second-best team in the state. In fact, the Rebels were the only team to defeat Eagan all season.
It was expected that Hilley, who won the 2016 Minnesota Ms. Volleyball award Wednesday, would carry the Rebels, but it surprised even her that she was put on the attack at often as she was. She finished with 27 kills — but she needed an outrageous 110 attacks to get them.
"Wow, 110 swings?" Hilley said. "I didn't know it would be that many. I knew it was a lot, but I don't think I've ever had that many before."
Eagan countered with an intense block put up by its front row, led by the fabulous Orr sisters — Brie, a senior, and Kennedi, an eighth-grader.
Brie, who was a starter for all three of the Wildcats' recent championship teams, finished with 18 kills and 19 assists in the last volleyball match of her high school career. Kennedi, considered the top eighth-grade volleyball player in the country, had 12 kills and 18 assists.
Brie said this championship was special because Kennedi was right there with her.
"Having the chance to play with her for the last two years make this special," said Brie, who plans to graduate early and begin her college career at Iowa in January. "It's the last time I'll get to play with her."
Eagan took a back-and-forth first set, scoring five of the last six points to break a 19-19 tie. That pattern was repeated in the third and fourth sets, as the two teams would battle neck-and-neck for most of the way before Eagan pulled away at the end.
"I'm not sure why we're able to do that, but it seems to happen a lot," Gillen said. "I always say it's because of the horseshoe in their pockets."
For Champlin Park, the loss signals the end of Hilley's career — she, too, is graduating early and will begin training with Wisconsin in January — but not the end of the program she helped boost. Like Eagan, the cupboard at Champlin Park is not bare. Players such as sophomores Izzy Ashburn and Emma Schmidt and freshmen Jordan Stalpes, Sami Hilley and Hannah Prasky are expected to keep the Rebels at or near the top in Class 3A.
"We have a group of seniors that changed the face of the program," Rebels coach John Yunker said. "And the ones that are coming back are hungry to keep it going."