Two of the best "unknown" smaller school programs in the state will clash in the 3 p.m. match at the Breakdown's first annual Side Out Classic Saturday at Hopkins' Lindbergh Center. That's "unknown" in quotations marks for a reason. While neither Maple Lake nor Blooming Prairie may have much attention from the casual volleyball fan, the die-hards know both are high-level programs just a step away from making some serious noise statewide.
Maple Lake coach Marty Kiebel has high expectations for his team after the Irish qualified for a third straight state tournament last season in what looked like a "rebuilding" season. The Irish were young, but plenty talented, beginning with freshman outside hitter Linsay Rachel.
"We return a number of players from last year's team," said Kiebel. "Our program has an excitement that motivates younger players to strive to become better in the off-season. Coming into this season, that motivation by younger players has never been stronger. In a year that we will return more letter winners than in many years, that desire to 'break through' has never been more evident in our younger players. I'm hoping that the motivated younger players, along with our returning veterans create a great competitive atmosphere that makes our entire gym get better at every practice."
Rachel is a familiar face in Maple Lake volleyball circles as she grew up in the system with older sisters playing in previous years for Kiebel. The athletic youngster had 358 kills as an 8th grader and the sky is the limit with her talent. But the Irish aren't a one-player team. Senior setter Jen Pomije and senior middle Emily Webb are both terrific players who earned All-Conference honors last fall, while sophomore setter Morgan Scheiber was an honorable mention pick.
Blooming Prairie returns its "big three" and for coach Gina McLaughlin and the Awesome Blossoms, it's a welcome return. The trio occupies three key positions for the team: hitter Taylor Hagen, back row ace Nicole Inwards and setter Madison Worke. They helped the program to 22 victories last fall.
Perhaps the only reason the Awesome Blossoms aren't more well-known state wide is that they reside in arguably the toughest section in the state, 1A, along with powerhouse Bethlehem Academy, Fillmore Central, Wabasha-Kellogg, Mabel-Canton and more.
Why Maple Lake will win:
Why Blooming Prairie will win:
Our pick: Maple Lake in five.