Saying he realized volleyball "wasn't something I wanted to be retired from," Walt Weaver is back on a high school sideline after a five-year hiatus. He has taken over at Lakeville North in a case of one icon essentially taking over for another. Milan Mader left the Panthers after finally guiding the team to a state championship in 2010. Steve Willingham coached North last season, but shifted over to Lakeville South for 2012. It left an opening that Weaver, a coaches association Hall of Famer who guided Apple Valley to 656 victories and two state championships, couldn't avoid. "Staying away wasn't going to be easy," said Weaver, who coached club volleyball after he retired from high school coaching and teaching in 2006. At Lakeville North, he inherits one of the premier teams in the state. The Panthers came within a game of adding a second title last season but lost in five sets to Eden Prairie. Five players return.


Understandably, outstate teams tend to dominate the two smaller-school classes of volleyball. But you don't have to travel too far outside the immediate metropolitan area to find some top-notch Class 2A teams that might join the festivities this season. Three from the Minnesota River Conference -- Le Sueur-Henderson (third), Jordan (seventh) and Belle Plaine (eighth) --earned spots in the first state poll of the season. As a good early barometer, the third-ranked Giants and eighth-ranked Tigers play each other Tuesday night. Jordan, with championships in 2006 and 2008, is the only metro-area school with titles among the smaller classes since the Minnesota State High School League added Class 3A in 1999.


Xcel Energy Center doesn't draw the center-ice curtain for two courts of state tournament volleyball until November. But there are several chances to see top matchups well in advance of the year's final serves. Next week's tournament on the home court of defending Class 2A champion Marshall is loaded and includes Class 3A, No. 1 Lakeville North. The always-tough Apple Valley Invitational, now in its 34th year, also includes the Panthers along with all three defending state champions. Blaine, Eagan and Waconia are entered as well, meaning the top five teams in the preseason 3A state poll are in the field. If you don't want to wait long for a possible big-vs.-small-school tilt, Lakeville North opens at home against defending Class 1A champ Bethlehem Academy on Tuesday night.