A 15-year volleyball state tournament drought could end for Totino-Grace this fall with the Fridley school’s move to Class 2A this year.
“It would kind of just put almost a ribbon on what we have worked for,” Eagles defensive specialist Megan Mullen said.
The senior has seen her share of postseason heartbreak in Class 3A. The Eagles fell 3-1 to Stillwater in the Class 3A, Section 4 quarterfinals last fall. In 2015, the Eagles lost 3-1 in the Section 4 title match to Roseville.
No Eagles volleyball team has reached state since the 2002 tournament. The players see a reminder of that in their gym each time they pass the banner hanging on the wall by the entrance to their locker room.
Totino-Grace had been one of the smallest schools in Class 3A. The Minnesota State High School League realigned classes this year, moving the Eagles down to Class 2A because of enrollment.
“We have about 800 kids, and our conference is about 2,800 kids per school,” fourth-year Eagles coach Kayla Cole said.
Class 2A pollsters have acknowledged the Eagles’ success and arrival with a No. 9 ranking in the preseason poll. The Eagles also rank the highest out of the teams from Section 5.
Totino-Grace players don’t consider a trip to state a sure thing, though. The section has strong teams in DeLaSalle and Rockford.
“It gets knocked because it’s a different class than 3A, but there’s certainly the same caliber of players as 3A,” Cole said. “We don’t want to overlook anybody.”
The Eagles must replace all-state middle blocker Izzy Sommers and star outside hitter Eliza Dahly. Both are playing Division II college volleyball this fall.
Middle blocker Allison Walker can help up front in Sommer’s absence. The 5-10 junior had 102 kills and 45 blocks last season.
Rylie Rios, a sophomore outside hitter, will need to become a key offensive force in place of Dahly. Rios, 5-9, posted 196 digs and 29 aces as a freshman.
“I’m really glad that I can come out and actually be a really big part of this team — help on the court [and] not just off,” Rios said of her increased role.
New varsity outside hitters Elizabeth Poulit, a senior, and Lauren Mikolich, a junior, will also be looked to for kills.
“Either of them can play on either pin [corner], which helps,” Cole said.
Cole hopes to get strong production from 5-8 freshman outside hitter Brynn Smith, too.
Totino-Grace returns sophomore defensive specialist Elizabeth Holscher, 5-7, who shined last year with 26 aces and 234 digs. Also back are the 5-5 Mullen, who had 25 aces and 258 digs in 2016, and junior setter Maddie Schaefer, 5-9, who had 26 aces, 164 digs and 869 assists as a sophomore. She will lead the Eagles’ 5-1 offense again this season.
“This year, I’m really trying to see what I have on the other side of the net and really run the best offensive play before it happens,” Schaefer said.
Will all the talent Totino-Grace returns, a grueling schedule with mostly Class 3A teams will test the Eagles this season. In addition to the Class 3A-dominant Northwest Suburban Conference, the Eagles face many of their old rivals from Section 4 of Class 3A.
Totino-Grace opened the season last Tuesday with a 3-0 loss to North St. Paul, which returns significant talent from a team that won 24 games last year.
Once the Eagles jump into conference play, they’ll see more Class 3A state tournament hopefuls. That gauntlet includes last year’s state runner-up Champlin Park and another nine squads coming off winning seasons in 2016. Totino-Grace went 15-15 overall and 6-5 in the conference last fall.
Cole and company believe the challenges ahead will help when the postseason arrives in October.