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Following a physically draining five-set Class 3A state volleyball match last November at Xcel Energy Center, the emotions took over.
The two stars of the match, Sarah Wilhite and Alyssa Goehner, embraced once the gold and silver medals had been handed out. Tears in her eyes after Lakeville North fell just short of repeating as champions, Goehner smiled at her Eden Prairie opponent and let her get on with the celebration.
The next morning a new mission began -- together.
Goehner and Wilhite are the top hitters on the Northern Lights top 17-year-old club volleyball team. The day after the two combined to swat 67 of the 127 kills in the high school championship match, they were teammates.
"She's one of my best friends even though she goes to Eden Prairie," Goehner said. "Losing to her in the high school championship was emotional. But it's cool that we could play on the same team. She's tall and strong. She has a presence about her, always smiling and telling everyone we'll be fine."
Last month, their Northern Lights team finished the club season in supreme fashion.
The team, made up of 10 players representing eight high schools, defeated No. 1 ranked Texas Advantage 17 Black 26-24, 25-16 in Columbus, Ohio, to win the USAV National 17 Open championship. Northern Lights swept every match in the tournament.
"One of the best feelings I've had," said Champlin Park's Taylor Goar. "All the work we put in, all the ups and downs, we wanted to win this one. We made a big push for this one, and it's a great feeling to put it all out there and win it."
Even though the team had five new players from last year's 16-year-old version, prepvolleyball.com ranked it No. 3 to open the season. It proved the worth with a tournament victory in Omaha over President's Day weekend.
But by the time Memorial Day rolled around players noticed things weren't quite right. After a disappointing showing at a tournament in Chicago, players got together without the coaches and decided things had to change.
"We all knew we were good, but I don't think we understood what we could do," said Samantha Seliger Swenson of Hopkins, the youngest player on the team. "We realized no other teams should be able to stop us. We got a lot better physically with our skills, but everybody on the team is a good player. We were friends off the court, but on the court we never got into a groove. We talked about changing that."
Seliger Swenson said Goehner and Wilhite, both Division I recruits, were instrumental in the turnaround.
"They are the rocks of this team," she said. "We all looked to them."
Northern Lights lost in the semifinals of a national AAU tournament in Florida in June then began preparing for the USAV nationals with a continued focus.
By all accounts, the 17 Open field was the strongest in history. Rather than fret, Northern Lights embraced the challenge.
"It was crazy," said Goehner. "The time and era of volleyball nowadays is so competitive. Volleyball has completely changed. Everybody is so athletic and going to clubs for training. The competition is so big."
Once competition got underway, Northern Lights exacted some revenge on the Long Beach team that defeated them at USAV nationals last season. The team then prepared to take on the Texas Advantage squad responsible for knocking preseason No. 1 Tstreet out of the tournament.One match, winner take all
Northern Lights trailed 23-22 in the first set before a rally sparked by Wilhite. The team fell behind 12-11 in the second set and figured it was enough. Seliger Swenson, a setter who was named MVP of the national tournament, tied the match with a play at the net, then set Goehner for a kill that would give the team the lead for good.
Just as she did in the Class 3A championship match eight months earlier, Wilhite secured the title with a kill.
"Of all the teams I've played on at Lights, this one has outshined all the others," she said. "We've all matured and grown. The chemistry is what did it, not the talent at the end. No one outshined anybody else. I don't remember one specific person playing amazing in the championship game. It was everything: balanced passing, setting and hitting."
In a show of team camaraderie, Northern Lights players and coaches stood in a line and performed their self-choreographed "Wobble Dance" after the national championship victory.
Embarrassing? Sure. But they did it together. Just how they wanted it.
"It shows the type of team this was," Wilhite said.
Added Goar: "It's the best feeling in the world knowing any member of the team has your back at all times inside the gym and outside of the gym."
Later this month the players will all report back to their high schools to begin another trek they hope ends on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center.
"It's kind of odd to split up after such a huge accomplishment," Goehner said. "The atmosphere of being in a national championship, it hit me so much. So much adrenaline. Just the feeling of being there was so much fun. We're all really good friends and we'll always have this."
Brian Stensaas • 612-673-4127