The banner hangs above the Minneapolis Washburn gymnasium, its blankness staring down, almost in mocking fashion. Unlike the basketball banners hanging nearby, boasting of conference, section and state championships, the volleyball banner only three entries: a pair of Minneapolis Conference titles and a section championship. The most recent entry came in 1984.
It had become too much (actually, too little) for the members of the Washburn volleyball team to bear. This is the year, they vowed, they would happily clutter it up a bit more.
“Every time we come into the gym, we see that banner up there,” senior Rachel Stark said. “It’s time for us to put more up there.”
So far, the Millers have lived up to that promise. Following Monday’s four-set victory over St. Paul Como Park in the Twin City championship match, Minneapolis Washburn had a gaudy 27-0 next to its name. It wrested the City conference championship from the clutches of rival Southwest, which had held it so long, the title was tinged purple. They earned the No. 1 seed in Class 3A, Section 6, one spot ahead of traditional power Hopkins. There is even talk of their first state tournament berth, although such highfalutin talk is dismissed with a nervous laugh. First things first and all that.
“This has been an amazing season,” senior setter Sydney Miller said. “We’ve all worked hard and came in ready to play. I mean, no one thinks you’re going to go undefeated, but this group is so strong together. We’ve got a special bond.”
Bonding alone doesn’t produce this type of success, however. Washburn has a slew of weapons at its disposal, starting with Stark, an outside hitter who makes her presence felt no matter where she is in the rotation. Her jump serve is intimidating, she digs and passes well and possesses an arm swing that is powerful and accurate. She plays with ferocity but feels her best asset is far more docile.
“I think it’s my smile,” she said in between bites of a postmatch hot dog. “I’m always trying to play with a smile on my face. I think it helps keep us positive when things aren’t going our way.”
In an era of technical minutia, the assessment from Stark, who will take her game and grin to Kansas State next year, is spot on, according to coach Mark Nelson.
“This is not a team that gets way down on itself,” Nelson said. “They play together really well and don’t get rattled.”
Every top-flight hitter needs an efficient setter feeding her the ball, and the Millers have that in Miller. The 5-11 senior is adept at handling difficult passes and turning them into workable sets and is savvy enough to know where the opening are and when to take matters into her own hands. Against Como Park, she took advantage of the Cougars’ aggressive blocking strategy and found easy points with second-hit tips to open spots on the floor.
Still, any undefeated record comes with a catalyst. For Washburn, that impetus was a season-opening victory over New Life Academy, one of the top teams in Class 2A. They followed that with a three-set sweep of Edina and haven’t stopped winning since.
“That New Life match was big for them,” Nelson said. “We’d heard they were looking forward to their next match and thinking about how to beat Jordan. We thought, ‘They should be worried about how they’re going to beat us.’ ”
For all of Washburn’s success this season, the section playoffs present a treacherous path. It hasn’t advanced past the second round in more than a decade. The Millers beat No. 8-seeded Burnsville in the Section 6 quarterfinals Thursday and will face either Benilde-St. Margaret’s or rival Minneapolis Southwest in Tuesday’s semifinals.
Win or lose, the Millers admit this season has exceeded every expectation.
“This has been the most fun I’ve ever had playing volleyball,” Miller said. “Absolutely.”