There’s not much debate about what’s behind Stillwater volleyball’s arrival as one of the top Class 3A teams in the state.
It wasn’t a drastic change in playing style or infusion of talent that helped the No. 5 Ponies to a 9-2 start, with the two losses requiring five sets against No. 1 Eagan and No. 3 Champlin Park.
Rather, it’s the memory of last year’s section final, where Stillwater lost to Roseville 3-2 after an early 2-0 lead evaporated and a state tournament drought that started in 2009 was extended.
“It was probably the elephant in the room — we didn’t have to talk about it because we all just felt it,” Stillwater coach Bob Fisher said. “We didn’t have to say anything because we already know how we felt about that and what we need to do to get back and make amends.”
Other than the two losses, the Ponies have dropped a combined three sets the rest of the season — a pair in a five-set victory at Elk River and another Tuesday against Woodbury in a 3-1 win.
Those results have been fueled by the Ponies’ lofty goals. Not only do they want to end Roseville’s four-year section reign and return to the state tourney, but they want to make some noise once they arrive.
“At the beginning of the summer we knew we had a high potential of making the tournament,” said Kayla Gjerde, who along with Rachel Houle, Olivia Walsh and Maddie Whittington make up the team’s four senior captains. “We just put that into our practice every single day and worked toward that.”
This fast start has also been without the help of a slew of contributors, Fisher said. Stillwater cruised to the Apple Valley Aerie Challenge without two outside hitters — Lexi Oeltjen sat out with an ankle injury, while Gjerde was sitting in a classroom taking the ACT.
“It doesn’t change the work ethic in the gym or on the court,” Fisher said. “We just come out and play Stillwater volleyball the same way no matter what the personnel is out there.”
All this has the Ponies’ eyes fixated on this year’s section tournament and what might wait beyond.
“I think we feel very confident and we know what we can do,” Fisher said. “In past years we haven’t been there before. It’s been a while since Stillwater has been to the state tournament, and this year expectations are really high. We’re just trying to live up to our own high expectations.”
The fast start has only confirmed what the Ponies thought they were capable of, but it hasn’t distracted from the work Fisher said is still required to advance to the state tournament.
Instead, his team that’s “much more mature and much more ready” remains driven toward constant improvement — thanks to the memory of last year’s section final.
“These girls have the work ethic and the attitude that is what it’s going to take to get there,” Fisher said. “In addition to the skill level they have, they’re very committed and very dedicated.”
Fisher doesn’t see that changing any time soon. Not only do the Ponies believe they belong among the state’s best, but they believe they can persevere past any team in their way and are looking to prove it.
For Stillwater, the losses against Eagan and Champlin Park aren’t viewed as nice measuring sticks or proof it belongs. Instead, it’s fodder to its belief it has further to go to accomplish what they want against the state’s best.
First, that means taking care of business in the section final and ending the state tournament drought.
“I think we won’t be satisfied until we get there,” Houle said. “Even at the state tournament, we won’t be satisfied until we win the championship.”