The Wright Call
By Dave Wright
From the first day of practice nearly three months ago, Nova Classical Academy’s volleyball team has been laser-focused. The Knights remember well how close the West End charter school came a year ago to making it to the state high school tournament for the first time, falling just short to Mounds Park in the Section 4AA championship match. Head coach Tom Dobbs saw what he had returning and decided this year was the time for his team to make the move to the next level.
“Some of these girls have been playing together here and in the off-season for 4-5 years,” he said. “They know each other well and are very mature.”
Accordingly, Dobbs upped the ante and got his team matches this fall against schools previously considered to be out of the Knights’ range. They took on much larger Highland Park, Central, Hill-Murray, Andover and Forest Lake and beat them all, losing just two sets in the process. They also went to the Minnesota Volleyball Showcase to tangle with Pequot Lakes and Watertown-Mayer, schools at their level of play who have 37 wins between them.
The Pequot Lakes win stands out in Dobbs’ mind. The Knights lost the first set 25-21, but rallied 25-19 and 15-9 in the next two sets to win the contest at the September showcase. At the time, Pequot Lakes was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Class AA.
When all was said and done, the Knights finished the regular season 28-0, losing just seven sets along the way. “We’ve had a great season so far,” Dobbs said. “I thought we might lose a couple of times, but overall I had high expectations.”
Those expectations were fulfilled in part due to the efforts of the three Ball sisters. Seniors Samantha and Allison lead the Knights on the front line, often taking a feed from sophomore setter Ava. The sisters also have 175 service aces among them.
But numbers only tell a small part of the story. “These kids have been focused from the start,” Dobbs said. “They understand that nothing is given to them.”
“It’s tough to explain to the girls how special the season has been so far,” coach Tom Dobbs said, “but there’ll be time for that later.”
They also understood that their excellent regular-season numbers are already old news. The Knights will enter the postseason as the top-rated team in Class AA, but none of that matters now. “Rankings are great, but it’s just noise,” Dobbs said. “We remind ourselves we have to earn every point in every game.”
Dobbs referred to the October 13 home match against Visitation. The Knights prevailed 3-0, but the margin of victory shrank with each set. “It was Senior Night and that’s always a different type of vibe,” he said. “The fact is we were sloppy at times.”
Two days later, the Knights were at Bloomington Jefferson for an all-day tournament. They blanked Belle Plaine, winner of 17 matches, 2-0 in the first round. Three more wins followed, including a shutout over Mounds Park.
The top-seeded Knights will host a team that was still to be determined in the Section 4AA quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Saturday, October 29. The challenging section includes second-seeded Concordia, which won a set against Nova in an earlier meeting; third-seeded Saint Croix Lutheran, winner of 15 matches this fall; fourth-seeded Minnehaha Academy, a 19-win team; and fifth-seeded Mounds Park, the defending state champ.
“It’s tough to explain to the girls how special the season has been so far,” Dobbs said, “but there’ll be time for that later.”
For now, Nova’s focus is on winning the section title game on November 5 and making it to Xcel Energy Center for its first state volleyball tournament on November 9-12. It’s something Dobbs could only have dreamed about when he took over the program three years ago. He’s already aware of how far his team has come. Earlier this year, a parent came up to Dobbs after a match and told him how impressed he was with the Knights, saying, “They all have gotten better from last year.”
Dobbs appreciated the compliment, but he’s filing it in the back of his mind for now.
“The first half is done,” he said. The heavier lifting starts October 29.
Cadet gridders are undefeated, but…
It’s in the nature of coaches to find something to worry about and Saint Thomas Academy football coach Dan O’Brien is no exception. The Cadets wrapped up a perfect regular season with a 49-3 win at Tartan on October 19. They had just one game when they were seriously pressed—a 28-14 win at tough Mahtomedi—and finished the regular season outscoring their foes 332-51. As the top seed in Section 3AAAAA, they earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of the Bloomington Jefferson-Apple Valley game on their home field at 1 p.m. on October 29.
If it’s Apple Valley, it’ll be a rematch of the October 13 encounter that STA won 42-7. Oddly enough, that game provided O’Brien with some of the anxiety that afflicts all coaches. “The great news is we won, but we can play a lot better,” he said the day after that game. “We have some issues we need to clean up.”
O’Brien was likely referring to a pair of long kickoff returns and a lengthy pass completion that led to the Eagles’ lone score. It didn’t matter that night because the STA defense rose to the occasion when called upon. But if the Cadets want to get to state, those are the sorts of plays that can do a team in.
Going 8-0 during the regular season is impressive. In this case, it was made more so by the fact that quarterback Noah Erickson suffered an off-field injury and is sidelined. Maximus Sims has been excellent as STA’s other signal-caller, completing 65 percent of his passes. Running backs Love Adebayo and Savion Hart have combined for nearly 1,600 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“I always ask our team, ‘Did we do our best?’” O’Brien said. In the same breath, he added, “It’s been a special season. They need to hear that. The kids have been locked in.”
In addition to Apple Valley, Section 3AAAAA includes Hastings and Two Rivers. Though STA beat both schools by large margins during the regular season, O’Brien frets the second time around won’t be so easy. “It’s hard to beat a team twice,” he said. “It’s even tougher if it’s a rival school.”
Nevertheless, the Cadets have been able to do just that to qualify for the last three state tournaments. But that was in the past. “Football is an emotional game,” O’Brien said. “We need to be ready for anything we face.”
Dave Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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