A year ago, Nova Classical Academy volleyball coach Tom Dobbs was flying blind. The first-year head coach said he had one open gym look at his young charges and then roared into action in the shortened season.

“I had a little insight into the team because I’d seen a couple of players play club matches, but that was it,” Dobbs said. “Frankly, it was a scramble to just get on the court.”

The latter sentence could be said for most prep volleyball teams, who are back on a regular schedule this year. For coaches like Highland Park’s Sonje Odegard, just having everybody in the same gym is a plus. Last year that would have been impossible, since teams had to practice at different times.

“I know the names of all 36 players in our program after a week,” Odegard said. “That type of camaraderie is important.”  

For Central High coach Anne Branstad, this year’s volleyball season once again provides the chance to have actual tryouts with all the players involved. “It builds family when you can do that,” she said.

Cretin-Derham Hall coach Sara Waters is also thankful to get into a regular routine. “We rarely had the same lineup last year,” she recalled. 

There is one major change this year, however, as the state tournament expands with a fourth class. With that in mind, here’s a snapshot of the local teams: 

central volleyball
Central’s Marielle Wiersma and Violet Hackbarth team up to block a shot by Como’s Tess Freberg in a straight three-set win over the Cougars on September 9. Photo by Brad Stauffer


League: Saint Paul City
Last year’s record: 8-4
Coach: Anne Branstad

Key players: senior libero Jada Young, senior middle hitter Violet Hackbarth, senior outside hitter Paige Daleiden.

Outlook: With 15 seniors on the roster, this might be the most veteran team in the state. Central was the only City Conference team to even win a set off Highland Park last year and is aiming for bigger and better things this time. “The girls are up for a challenge. They push each other hard,” said Branstad, who coached the JV before taking over the varsity last year. Seniors like setter Cecelia Rowell and the trio noted above are on the radar of college coaches.

Cretin-Derham Hall

League: Suburban East
Last year’s record: 0-10
Coach: Sara Waters

Key players: junior setter Gillian Kircher, junior middle hitters Abby Kline and Sophia Huot.

Outlook: Waters has good reason to think her second season as head coach will be better than her first. A hectic first week consisted of getting to know the roughly 70 players now in the CDH program. “We have some height and some depth,” Waters said. Players like Juliana Cruz, a senior libero who moved into the lineup in the middle of last year, will likely carry a bigger load this year. Kline, the daughter of CDH boys’ basketball coach Jerry, gives the Raiders height in the middle at 6-foot-2. “We’ll make some headway this year,” Waters said. “We’re headed in the right direction.” 

Highland Park

League: Saint Paul City
Last year’s record: 11-0
Coach: Sonje Odegaard

Key players: senior outside hitter Kiyomi Callahan, senior middle blocker Avaeria Stagg, junior middle blocker Bella Kottke.

Outlook: The five-time City Conference champs graduated seven seniors last year, but figure to be tough to handle again. Callahan and Stagg are the co-captains. “We had a deep bench last year,” said Odegard, who is taking over the reins after being an assistant for two years. “We had several JV players who could easily have played varsity last year. I’m confident we’ll have a strong team.” The addition of a fourth class in volleyball may help the Scots, who will be a Class AAA team come section and tourney time this year.

Minnehaha Academy

League: Independent Metro Athletic
Last year’s record: 5-6
Coach: Kim Benka

Key players: senior middle hitter Dori Hobbie, junior setter Violet Sahlstrom, senior outside hitter Annika Benson.

Outlook: With eight returning players, Benka hopes the Redhawks can move into the first division of the IMAC and perhaps challenge for the top two spots. “It’s my fifth year here,” she said. “I know what this group can do. It’s time to take the next step.” Benka’s daughter, Madelyn, a sophomore outside hitter, may be ready to join the above-named trio as a key contributor. Co-captains Hobbie and Lydia Schroeder provide excellent leadership.  

Nova Academy

League: Skyline
Last year’s record: 8-3
Coach: Thomas Dobbs

Key players: junior setter Allison Ball, junior outside hitter Samantha Ball, junior middle hitter Cordelia Thomas. 

Outlook: This might have been the best team nobody ever heard of last year. The Knights, who opened 2021 with an impressive 3-0 win at Highland Park, were second in the Skyline Conference to Concordia Academy a year ago and have six of seven players in the regular rotation returning. “These kids have played together for a while now,” Dobbs said. “We have multiple terminators on offense. We also have great chemistry.” The Ball twins also have younger sister Ava, a freshman outside hitter who played a lot last year and has grown a couple of inches in the offseason.

Saint Paul Academy

League: Independent Metro Athletic
Last year’s record: 1-6
Coach: MJ Engstrom

Key players: junior middle hitter Solvej Eversoll, junior setter Riley Erben, sophomore libero Natalie Vogenthaler. 

Outlook: Engstrom, who has been a head coach at three college programs and assisted at three others, got the job at SPA a week before practice started. She and the Spartans are still getting to know each other. It’s a balanced roster with four seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen. Eversoll is the lone returning all-conference player. “We’re going to get better as we go along,” Engstrom said. “We need to not over think things.” Vogenthaler is an excellent passer and defender.

Two Rivers

League: Metro East
Last year’s record: 6-6
Coach: Kate Naughton

Key players: senior libero Bella Ramos, junior outside hitter Ellie Rice, senior setter Kallie Frett. 

Outlook: In her 18th season at the helm of the Warriors, Naughton has plenty of reason to look forward to this fall. The five returnees from last year were all regular rotation players. Six-foot-3 sophomore middle hitter Gabi Kirchner also could make Two Rivers a handful for Metro East teams to deal with. Toss in a change to Section 3AAA, where they will face schools closer to their own size, and it’s easy to understand why optimism is high this year. “Our defense is very strong,” Naughton said. “We need to be more aggressive on offense to be successful.”


League: Tri-Metro
Last year’s record: 4-6
Coach: Colleen Modde

Key players: senior setter Isabelle Chad, senior libero Emma Traeger, senior middle hitter Holly Mingo.

Outlook: Modde has no problem admitting that it’s a rebuilding year for the Blazers. “The record didn’t show it, but we had a really good team last year,” she said, adding that while eight return from that team only two were in the regular rotation. “We might have a slow start, but the kids are good learners and we’ll get better as the year goes on.” Versatile athletes like Traeger, who was an outside hitter last year, and Chad—“She’s a tiger,” Modde said—will be role models for a talented freshman class.

— Dave Wright


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