Southwest Minnesota has had its share of November state tournament glory in the past. This year, it could be historic. Five area teams have a chance to bring a state championship back to their communities, and in Minneota, there might just be two reasons to celebrate.
The Minneota volleyball squad and Minneota/Lincoln HI football team are both state qualifiers this year and join the Dawson-Boyd and Tracy-Milroy-Balaton football teams and the Marshall volleyball team (Marshall also sent its girls cross country team to the state meet this year) in attaining the ultimate prize in high school sports.
"This should say volumes to the quality of athletics in our area," Minneota football coach Chad Johnston said. "I believe sometimes certain areas or sections get the reputation of not being consistently as competitive as others, (but) we have good coaches and good programs in southwest Minnesota."
Independent file photo
Tracy-Milroy-Balaton and Minneota enter the state tournament battle-tested, having gone through the tough Little Sioux Conference — what one area coach says is one of the top small-school conferences in the state.
With the exception of TMB, none of these programs are strangers to their respective state tournaments. The Marshall and Minneota volleyball teams, both 29-3 this year, are actually old hats at this. This is the 13th straight trip (state-best 25th overall) to the state tournament for the Tigers, who are looking for their sixth state title since 2004. The Tigers, who were No. 1 in Class AA in every coaches' poll this season, have compiled a 28-7 record at the state tournament throughout the years. The Vikings, meanwhile, are making their fifth consecutive trip to state; they won a state championship in 2006 and have finished runners-up three times ('01, '05, '09) since 2001.
Having five area teams make it this far is "great proof of the excellent athletes we have in our part of the state," said D-B football coach Cory Larson, whose Blackjacks are making their third straight state tournament appearance (they won it all in 2011 with a 15-point win over Mahnomen in the Class A title game). "Teams advancing have represented our conference/section very well but to have this many teams representing our area is an ultimate indicator of the level of play our region provides."
"This part of the state has always been highly respected for its level of athletic excellence," Marshall volleyball coach Dan Westby said. "Going back to the 1960s when this part of the state won three boys' basketball titles in a five-year span (Edgerton in 1960, Marshall in 1963 and Luverne in 1964) fans from around the state have always held this area in high regard."
Steph Hennen, who coaches the Minneota volleyball team, credits off-season programs like Southwest Minnesota Juniors for the continued success local volleyball teams enjoy.
"And now each community is doing their own, too," she said. "Kids have much more opportunities to play volleyball and improve their skills. That has a ton to do with it."
Hennen also said the girls' commitment and the work ethic found in this area has a lot to do with all the success.
"Once they get a taste of a state tournament, they don't want to be the ones who don't get back," she said.
The football teams representing the area should be well-prepared for whatever is thrown at them at state, having played a grueling conference schedule - all three are members of the Little Sioux Conference, which Minneota/Lincoln HI won with an 8-0 record. Dawson-Boyd finished second with one loss and TMB finished behind Adrian in the standings but defeated the Dragons in the section finals.
"As far as the Little Sioux Conference - which I feel is one of the better small-school conferences in the state year after year - it's great to get three teams into the state tournament," said Larson. "I am not sure if this has happened before."
"I think it says a lot," that five local teams are headed to state, TMB football coach Randy McIntire said. "Especially the Little Sioux Football Conference with three teams in the tourney. (And) congratulations to Minneota for getting two teams in."
The last time the Panther football team reached state, they weren't even the Panthers, and there were five classes in football compared to seven today. The 1984 Tracy Scrappers (remember the bulldog?) reached the state quarterfinals under Gale Otto but have lost in the section finals six times since then.
"The team is really excited to have finally broken through to the next level," said McIntire, who co-coaches along with Derek Flann.
This year's success has only added to the rich volleyball tradition in southwest Minnesota. Westby said that success starts with kids who sacrifice to put in the time and energy it takes to reach an elite status.
"If the kids aren't willing to do what it takes, it's not going to happen," he said. "From a volleyball standpoint, teams from our part of the state have always fared well at the state tournament. In 2004, Marshall won the Class AAA title and TMB won the Class AA title. With Fosston winning the Class A championship that season it means the western sliver of the state had the most successful volleyball teams in it."
Like the volleyball team, this won't be the first rodeo for the Minneota football program. The Vikings, who made the jump from Class A to Class AA this year, were the poster team for the Prep Bowl in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They went to state every year from 1985-1989, winning three Class C championships along the way. Minneota returned to state form in 1992, were Class C runners-up in 1993 and went again in 1994. After some down years for its standards, the program bounced back with a Class A title in 2009 and another state tournament appearance in 2010.
"We have high expectations, and our athletes work hard to strive to achieve them," said Johnston. "We are very fortunate to have dedicated coaches and athletes who are willing to sacrifice the time needed to achieve the success that we have been fortunate to be experiencing in recent years. The community of Minneota still talks about the football success of the late '80s."
Larson said the athletes take a great sense of pride in making the trip to state, which has proven to be a motivator for future teams.
"For the returning players, it becomes a challenge to get back to that point the next season and motivates them to work that much harder to accomplish what teams before them have," he said. "It's about creating memories those memories will last a lifetime. Once the season is over and they can reflect on the experience, that's when it starts to sink in."
"We needed this for our program," McIntire said. "This lets the team (and) players know that they can compete at this level."
For Westby, much of the magic of going to state is seeing how the student-athletes react and soak it all in together as a season culminates on the biggest stage.
"You're always happiest for them when they get the opportunity to experience the state tournament," he said. "As a coach, there's nothing more gratifying than watching a group of kids come together at the beginning of the season and watching them meld themselves together into one cohesive unit. This group we have this season is as close-knit as any team we've ever had."
The success the Minneota volleyball team has had has raised the standard for the sport there to the point where younger athletes see going to state as an annual event.
"They really don't know anything else," Hennen said. "Our elementary kids and even our junior high kids just think that's where our season ends - in St. Paul. I think after they graduate and have been out of it, they realize how big a deal it is. They don't really realize what they've accomplished until after they've been away from it."
Johnston said this is the players' chance to prove they belong, make school history and possibly get into the state record books, which are already dotted with Viking players from past years.
But going to state isn't just about the players. The coaches agree that sending a team to a state tournament can rally a community.
"It is a great source of pride here in Tracy," said McIntire. "This has not happened here at Tracy since 1984. The community support has been great. Hopefully we can keep this ride going. I am sure that this is something the players and community will remember for a long time."
Larson said the Dawson and Boyd communities are ardent supporters of their high school athletic teams, and the coaches and players are fully aware of how much a trip to state means for the residents.
"The last few years the amount of pride our community and those that still follow Blackjack sports from a distance has been tremendous and very humbling," he said. "We have people in Italy, Mexico, Florida, California listening and watching playoff games. The whole experience of making it to a state tournament would not be the same if our community/fans didn't show their pride in our football team."
Westby is grateful for the community support both the Marshall and Southwest Minnesota State University volleyball teams receive.
"We're pretty lucky to have the crowds we do, considering the number of events that both schools have in a typical week," he said. "Our student body has always followed our volleyball team well. We probably had more than a dozen students at our championship match at the Lakeville North Tournament this year."
Hennen said Minneota High School sports also has a solid support base in the community with businesses owners who double as fans.
"Our businesses are very supportive of all our sports," she said. "They put out radio ads, do newspaper ads. And so have our families and the fans in general. You can't go anywhere in town without hearing people talking about it."