Mackenzie Horkey stood courtside at the Midwest Volleyball Warehouse in Burnsville on Saturday, watching wistfully as Fillmore Central celebrated the championship of the Minnesota Class 1A Volleyball Showcase. Horkey, Southwest Christian’s explosive outside hitter, said she felt that she and her teammates on the then-No. 1-ranked 1A volleyball team should have been hoisting the biggest trophy of the tournament. She was not satisfied with the Stars’ third-place finish.
“I just keep thinking, ‘Oh, that should be us out there,’ ” Horkey said. “We’ll just have to use this as motivation for the rest of the year.”
It’s a positive sign for fans of Southwest Christian that could be bad news for the rest of Class 1A.
Since head coach Greg Sayuk took over 10 years ago, Southwest Christian has been building a small-school volleyball powerhouse. It came within a side-out of reaching the top last fall, losing to Bethlehem Academy in the state championship match. Five seniors from that team have graduated but the Stars have scarcely felt the loss. In fact, they might be even better than a year ago.
“This team is relentless,” Sayuk said. “These kids don’t care who we’re playing, they don’t settle for subpar or average. They’re extremely competitive.”
In addition to Horkey, a dynamic leaper who plays much taller than her 5-8 height would suggest, the Stars have a savvy senior setter in Rachel Carlin and size in the middle a pair of 6-foot middle hitters in Abby Palkert and Ally Krommendyk. Defenses cannot focus solely on stopping Horkey, a Division I recruit who is headed to Nebraska-Omaha, with hitters Abby Vandergalien and Emily McNatt available.
All of which leads to the question: How does a school with only 190 students produce such exquisite volleyball?
“Most of us have been playing together for a long time,” McNatt said. “There is a unity on the team, not just on the court but outside of it.
Many give credit to Sayuk for moving Southwest Christian into the realm of the elite.
“He’s a great coach,” Palkert said. “He’s built our program over a lot of years. Girls at other schools know the name Southwest Christian.’’
Sayuk deflected the compliment, saying that he’s only continued what was already in place when he arrived.
“There’s always been a tone to this program that they really want to compete,” he said. “It was here when I got here. The players have done a fantastic job of developing that dynamic.”
Before Saturday’s loss to Fillmore Central in the Showcase semifinals, the Stars had been in the midst of a type of season that separates the great teams from the good. They had defeated Bethlehem Academy in straight sets on Sept. 10, which vaulted them to the No. 1 spot in the state coaches association rankings for the first time in school history. One week later, they made quick work of Belle Plaine, which is No. 4 in Class 2A.
That’s why no matter how much they tried to downplay the loss, which dropped them to No. 2 in Class 1A behind Fillmore Central, and say the right things, there was a palpable sense of disappointment.
“I guess we’re a little disappointed,” Palkert said. “Being No. 1 is great. It gave us a lot of confidence. But it doesn’t mean you’re unbeatable. We know still have thing to work on.”
Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737