Minnesota. Wisconsin. Iowa times three. Kansas State. UCLA. Nevada-Las Vegas.
It’s an impressive list of Division I colleges in and of itself. The connection? All are volleyball programs that have accepted verbal commitments from Minnesota high school juniors, marking perhaps the deepest class of volleyball players the North Star State ever has produced.
Champlin Park’s Sydney Hilley, fresh from a stint with the Team USA Under-18 team that finished second in the World Championships in Lima, Peru, announced her intent to play at Wisconsin last year. Hopkins’ 6-3 outside hitter Jasmyn Martin has committed to Minnesota.
Eagan setter Brie Orr, Lakeville South outside hitter Halle Johnston and Cambridge-Isanti outside hitter Claire Sheehan all have given verbal commitments to Iowa. Cretin-Derham Hall’s 6-4 outside hitter Brynn Carlson will patrol the front row at Kansas State. Lakeville South’s dynamic setter/hitter Jenny Mosser is headed to UCLA. And Mariena Hayden, a powerful outside hitter from Class 2A’s top-ranked Belle Plaine, gave a verbal commitment last week to UNLV.
Eight Division I commitments already, and that number is expected to grow. Players such as Eagan’s Alyssa Doucette, Minneapolis Southwest’s April Houston, Roseville’s Bre Maloney and Wayzata’s duo of Kate Berg and Kenzie Groeschel head a list of other 11th-graders receiving D-I interest.
“Their stories are yet to be written,” Wayzata coach Scott Jackson said. “But, in terms of potential, this might be the best class Minnesota has ever produced.”
Over the past decade or so, Minnesota has become renowned as a volleyball hotbed. The University of Minnesota’s lineup reads like a checklist of some of the best players Minnesota has produced, including Paige and Hannah Tapp of Stewartville, Sarah Wilhite of Eden Prairie, Alyssa Goehner of Lakeville North and Samantha Seliger-Swenson of Hopkins.
Still, so much talent in one high school class is unusual.
“I look around and I think ‘Why is our class so good?’ ” Mosser asked. “I think when you’re surrounded by good players, it pushes you to want to be better. You look at someone and think, ‘I want to be as good as them,’ and you try that much harder. You want those bragging rights.”
The impetus has been the rapid growth of Junior Olympic club programs — Northern Lights, Minnesota Select and Mizuno M1 among them — that routinely send teams to national tournaments and returnwith trophies, accolades and scholarship offers.
The rise of the clubs, some of which run for more than eight months, has produced a wealth of talent that has carried over to high schools.
“Players are so much better now,” longtime Eagan coach Kathy Gillen said. “The volleyball clubs are the reason for that. Girls are playing 10 months out of the year. You can’t just go out for the high school team like you could when I was in school.”
Belle Plaine coach Cassie Koch has witnessed the drastic level of improvement in high school players in the 13 years since she graduated as a record-setting player at her current school.
“It’s very hard for one player to dominate anymore,” she said. “There’s more athleticism, and there are so many more big kids with coordination. Defense is much better and rallies are longer. To win, you need outstanding players and a surrounding cast.”
Last summer the Minnesota Select 18-1 team, which included both Hilley and Mosser, finished second in the nation in the highest division at the AAU national tournament in Orlando, Fla. Northern Lights, considered by many to be the state’s top volleyball club, sent a team that featured Carlson, Martin, Johnston, Orr and Sheehan to that same tournament.
The mixing of players from different high schools creates club teams that accelerate skill development. Play with the best, become the best.
“There are some club teams that play at a college level and they’re 16-, 17-year-old kids,” Koch said.
Adam Beamer, a director and coach at Northern Lights, acknowledges that the current crop of juniors is better than most but isn’t willing to hand out once-in-a-lifetime superlatives.
He expects many more classes with this level of talent as volleyball in Minnesota continues to grow.
“It’s really a numbers game,” Beamer said. “You get more players playing, there are going to be more who rise to the top.”
Jackson, who also runs the Minnesota Select Club, agrees.
“Things go in cycles. We’re approaching a time when we’ll be developing this level of talent year-in and year-out.”