MARSHALL - Members of the Southwest Minnesota Juniors 18-1 team recently brought home a national volleyball championship, marking the first time in club history to do so and elevating the already-elite program to new heights.
For nearly 30 years, Southwest Minnesota State University has offered the Junior Olympic program experience to surrounding volleyball athletes.
"It can be a one-in-a-lifetime experience," 18s coach Tyler Boddy said. "Being part of the program gives them something they'll never forget and something they can take to a college program if they choose to play after high school. It shows colleges coaches they can compete at a high level. A good chunk of our players do go on to play in college somewhere."
Members of the Southwest Minnesota Juniors 18-1 team are all smiles after finishing 11-0 and winning the 2014 USA Volleyball Girls National Championship title recently. Front Row (L-R): Kaylee Burmeister, Aleah Schwitters, Taylor Reiss, Hannah Bennett, Megan Larson, Baylie Kubesh, Haley Bennett Back Row: Coach Tyler Boddy, Kenzie Beekman, Courtney Place, Marah Mulso, Assistant Coach Emilee Gutzmer
In addition to with playing at a much higher level than they otherwise would, young players also get the opportunity to meet and compete with athletes from neighboring school districts. Along with Minneota's Megan Larson and tournament MVP Taylor Reiss, Marshall's Kenzie Beekman was named to the 18s USA Volleyball Girls' Junior National Championships All-Tournament team after the completion of the 4-day competition at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
"I chose to do the SW Jrs. program because I'm going there for college and I wanted to be in that kind of environment," Beekman said. "They have really good coaches and I knew I'd get a lot out of it and I did. It was a lot of fun."
Beekman, who has been part of the SW MN Jrs. program for the past two JO seasons, has plenty of volleyball accolades to her name, including three straight state volleyball championships and other high-achieving individual honors. But like a true athlete, Beekman wanted to take her game to the next level.
"It was fun playing with different people, ones we usually play against in high school," Beekman said. "There were really good players on our team. It was an entirely different kind of game, where we had to get used to different people. It's a higher level than high school. The tempo was definitely faster than in high school."
Winning a national championship also felt different for Beekman.
"It was crazy," she said. "In the final game, we traded points. It was just back and forth the whole time. Neither team went on a run. Winning the national title was a lot different than being a state champion. It's really cool because not many people get to be a national champion."
Reiss has been a member of the SW MN Jrs. program for five years and has plenty of accolades of her own to speak of. For the past four years, she and Larson have led the Minneota Viking to four straight third-place finishes in the Class A state volleyball tournament.
"I started (playing club) as a seventh grader," Reiss said. "I like being able to work with college coaches and being in that type of atmosphere. They want to help you get better and they help you work on the little things. It's also nice to get to know people from other schools and become friends with people you otherwise wouldn't."
Along with Reiss, Larson and Beekman, Marshall's Marah Mulso, Hannah Bennett and Haley Bennett, Jackson County Central's Kaylee Burmeister, Southwest United's Courtney Place, MACCRAY's Aleah Schwitters and BOLD's Baylie Kubesh made up the 2014 championship team.
"There were challenges right away because we weren't used to playing together," Reiss said. "It took a good while because not everyone was at every practice because they had other things going on. But toward the middle of the season, we started competing better as a team."
While everyone on the team had a role and did their part, Boddy said that the Marshall and Minneota veterans had a competitive edge that was difficult to match.
"Those kids know how to win," he said. "They've taken that from their previous high school seasons and club experience and know how to get it done. They've showed their teammates and other kids in the club how to do that, too. These kids that are playing on club teams are dedicated and have put in a lot of time and effort. And they're wanting to be in it for the right reason, which is for the love of it and because they have a passion for it. When you get a lot of kids who feel that way and want to compete hard, they're hard to beat."
By the time the national tournament rolled around, the 18s were clicking on all cylinders together, though winning the title was far from easy.
"We harped on the kids all year that every point matters," Boddy said. "We've won or lost a lot of games by two points, so every point is valuable and you can't take them for granted. We need to play hard for every point because we don't want to regret any of those early points."
The SW MN 18s came to the national tournament ready to play and took down every opponent that stood in their way of the title, finishing with an impressive 11-0 record.
"We only lost two sets and no matches," Boddy said. "We lost one set in pool play and one in the championship match. It was pretty fun. We had a good ride."
The 18s went head-to-head and defeated teams from across the country throughout the tournament, including Saddleback Valley Volleyball Club out of California in the championship match.
"It was kind of intimidating when you got up there because there are so many teams and it is such a big atmosphere," Reiss said. "But once you start playing, you put all those things out of your mind and just play. There was tough competition up there and we had to work hard. The best part was winning the nationals, knowing you worked hard for it all season. And to come away with something like that is a really cool feeling."
While she was appreciative of being honored with the MVP award for the American 18s Division, Reiss said her focus had been entirely team-driven.
"It felt pretty good to be the MVP, but I didn't worry about that during the games," she said. "I just wanted to win with my team. It felt good to win the national title. I've never won anything like that before. But we worked hard for it all season and I think we deserved it."
Boddy noted that one of the biggest challenges during the season was making sure the team kept playing against good competition.
"We wanted to play in the best tournaments and make practices as competitive as possible so we could play at the highest level possible," Boddy said. "So I stayed on them and created a competitive atmosphere in practice. I thought they responded well."
Beekman agreed, admitting that she was grateful for having been pushed by Boddy and the other SMSU coaches.
"We never had easy practices," she said. "We always got challenged and pushed. There were times where Tyler would have to get after us, but we wouldn't have won the national title if he hadn't done that."
While those who make the club teams are usually good athletes, it still takes time to configure a team. The rate at which a club team improves at, though, is typically very high.
"It took us a little while to get used to each other as teammates and players," Boddy said. "It was nice to see that we definitely got better as the season went on. We stayed on them at practice and the whole way through and they came around at the end. We played well, especially in the last few days. Those kids deserve it because they put in a lot of time and effort to get though it at practices."
In addition to being a highlight in some players' careers, national volleyball tournaments also offers athletes the opportunity to connect with college coaches. Though there were also NCAA Division II and III coaches in attendance, the majority of the 300-plus coaches at nationals were representing Division I schools, which equates to high visibility for the young athletes.
"Being in SW Juniors gives the kids the exposure if they're looking to play collegiately," Boddy said. "The players are exposed to different colleges. A lot of coaches from the bigger schools will go to the bigger events like this. It's nice that we can compete with some of the best teams in the nation."
Competing at the highest level isn't easy since the majority of club organizations limit outside activities and demand year-round participation. SW MN Jrs. is proud to work with athletes who are involved in other sports as well as volleyball.
"A lot of the kids in the biggest clubs are playing from November to the beginning of July, so they're playing a lot of volleyball," Boddy said. "They've committed a lot of time and money. For us to compete against that is tough because we have kids who play two and three sports during the year. But that's important, too. As a club, we've been supportive of the kids being involved in other sports. We think it's important for them to have different experiences. But once it's our time, we want them to be dedicated to volleyball. This group of kids really took that to heart. They really started to play together as a group for a common goal."
Winning the national title also shines a positive light on the already-sparkling volleyball program at SMSU. The Mustangs have worked their way to becoming a NCAA Division II Championship contender, being ranked as high as No. 1 recently and having advanced to the NCAA tournament all 10 of head coach Terry Culhane's years. Culhane currently has a 260-71 record at SMSU.
"It shows that the area has a lot of talented athletes," Boddy said. "It's been great to be able to work with the kids who have chosen to go through SW Juniors. A big part of it is because you have a good group of kids who want to be there, work hard and are good teammates to each other. This part of the state (despite being rural) has kids who can compete and who know how to win. That's a good things for us as a program, that we have those kids who know how to win."
Three players on the 18s team - Larson, Beekman and Hannah Bennett - are headed to play volleyball at SMSU this fall.
"I'm really excited for the college level," Beekman said. "I'd love to see us win a national (collegiate) championship."
Reiss has committed to Division I South Dakota State University and will take the court after finishing her final year of high school at Minneota.
"It's a little nerve-wracking to think about, but I'm excited," she said. "It's nice to get that out of the way and be able to focus on other things."
While graduating seniors move on from the program, other younger players will step up next JO season. Boddy and the other SW MN Junior Volleyball coaches are looking forward to helping develop upcoming talent and see where each season takes them.
"Southwest Minnesota Juniors has created an opportunity to be able to play together with kids from other towns," Boddy said. "Oftentimes, it's the best athletes in the area. Hopefully we'll be able to continue helping them in their club season and for the rest of their volleyball career.
Boddy has only been part of the SMSU and club programs for two years, but they've been high-quality years.
"The club program has been a good avenue for me to be able to keep learning as a coach and being able to be decently successful," Boddy said. "It's a credit to the kids, though, for all the time they've put in, which makes it a good experience. It's great because I've had the chance to get to know the kids from around the area in a sport that we all love."