1. Big schools, big mix

Unlike previous seasons, where a veteran volleyball watcher could accurately pinpoint two or three teams as serious Class 3A title contenders, as many as eight or nine teams are harboring some serious championship dreams. None are dominant but many are very good. There’s Eagan, which won the Class 3A title in 2013 and was runner-up last year; Prior Lake started the season No. 1 in the state coaches association Class 3A rankings only to fall to Champlin Park, another team with high hopes, in Saturday’s Breakdown Challenge; Rosemount, led by 2014 Star Tribune first team All-Metro selection Brittany McLean; and Wayzata, which finished 2014 on a high note and hopes to carry that momentum into this season. That’s not to overlook such powers as Lakeville South, Cretin-Derham Hall, Roseville and Hopkins, all teams that are state-tournament worthy.

2. Junior mints

The talent pool in Minnesota is as deep as it’s ever been. While there are plenty of good seniors in the metro this season, it’s the Class of 2017 that looks to be special. It starts with Champlin Park setter Sydney Hilley, who recently returned from a stint with the USA National Under-18 team, helping it to a second-place finish in the World Championships in Peru, and goes on to include Lake­ville South’s Jenny Mosser and Halle Johnston, Eagan’s Brie Orr, Hopkins’ Jasmyn Martin, Cambridge-Isanti’s Claire Sheehan, Wayzata’s Kate Berg and Mackenzie Groechel, Roseville’s Bre Maloney, Minnetonka’s Isabelle Aragon-Menzel, Belle Plaine’s Mariena Hayden and Cretin-Derham Hall’s Brynn Carlson.

3. Growing effect of volleyball clubs

A big reason for the explosive growth in talent is the number of elite volleyball clubs that exist in the Twin Cities area. Nearly every good high school player is also a member of one of those clubs and the training is paying dividends for the high school game. “Some high school games are played at a level similar to collegiate [volleyball],” wrote Belle Plaine coach Cassie Koch.

One of the advantages is that the clubs orchestrate their schedule to accommodate the high school season, allowing players to play both levels. “In sports such as soccer and hockey, the most talented kids are forced to choose between their school team and playing on an elite club team. That has not happened in volleyball,” said Wayzata coach Scott Jackson, who also runs one of those clubs, Minnesota Select. The support is not unanimous, however. Some lament that it has led to a growth in volleyball-only athletes. “With the proliferation of [the] long club season and 3-4 day per week participation in [club] volleyball, the high school volleyball player would be hard-pressed to play multiple sports,” Minnetonka coach Karl Katzenberger said.

Jim Paulsen