The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

Tom Dobbs watched the state volleyball tournament at Xcel Energy Center a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, it was from the stands, not the sidelines. For 10 weeks, Dobbs and his Nova Classical Academy volleyball team led a charmed life. The Knights bulldozed their way through their opponents to earn a 28-0 regular-season record, losing just seven sets along the way. One of those wins was a 3-1 decision at Concordia Academy on October 4.

After eliminating Richfield and Mounds Park in the Section 4AA playoffs, Nova and Concordia squared off again in the section final on November 5. The Knights got off to a rough start, losing two close sets in a row. They rallied to win the next two, but dropped the fifth and deciding set 15-12.

And just like that, the season that had brought so much joy came to a crashing halt. “They played loose and probably a little better than the last time we played them,” Dobbs said of Concordia 10 days after the section final match. “We didn’t serve as well and didn’t hit as efficiently as we did the first time.”

Accordingly, Dobbs showed up at Xcel and for the banquets around the state tournament in the role of a spectator rather than a participant. “It was hard at times,” he admitted. “The all-state banquet was difficult to attend.”

This was the season the Knights had been gunning for after having lost in last year’s section final and finishing 23-5. This fall, Nova had a solid senior nucleus and a talented group of younger players. The Knights earned regular-season victories over eventual state Class AA champ Cannon Falls and runner-up Pequot Lakes. In its own way, that gave a sense of genuine accomplishment to Dobbs and his team.

“It hurts to lose,” he said, “but I told the team they know who they are and what they accomplished. They made a name for themselves.”

 

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To emphasize the point, Dobbs quizzed his players, asking them who won the state title two years ago. A few players ventured guesses, making Dobbs’ point clear. High school athletics is about making your own memories. Even though this year’s ride didn’t go as far as hoped, it still was one to remember.

With the high school season completed, the Knights took a couple of days off to recover. By the next weekend, the players were ready for more action in preparation for the club volleyball tryouts that will soon take place.

“It hurts to lose,” said Nova volleyball coach Tom Dobbs, “but I told the team they know who they are and what they accomplished. They made a name for themselves.”

“They’re very resilient,” Dobbs said of his players. In short, getting back in the gym was therapeutic for them. There was a new batch of girls ages 12-14 anxious to move up the ladder and to work out with the older players to see what it takes to successfully compete.

Dobbs understood perfectly. “I do strength and conditioning for Northern Heat,” he said, and the next season is just around the corner.

Northern Heat started its club volleyball programs under the direction of former Cretin-Derham Hall coach Rick Kuehlwein in 1986. Ellen Schafer, who played for Kuehlwein and later coached at CDH, now oversees the operation. Most of the Northern Heat players attend CDH. There are several teams, including ones for players as young as age 12. Tryouts and practices are scheduled through the end of the month. Tournaments will follow. In its own way, volleyball has become as organized and widespread as youth hockey and traveling basketball leagues.

Dobbs’ work with his seniors is not quite over. There’s another season now afoot—the college recruiting season. There were seven seniors on the Nova roster, and Dobbs said he’s ready to help any of them who ask for help when it comes to choosing a college.

“Playing a sport is part of the equation, but the most important thing is to find a college that works for you,” he said. “I was once told that boys battle to bond and girls bond to battle.”

In other words, whether any of the Knights play in college or not, finding the right fit is key. Dobbs didn’t have to look far for an example. His son, Owen, is a 6-foot-2 attacker in lacrosse. When looking at schools, Owen, who scored 20 goals for CDH last season, considered North Carolina, which would have accepted him as a walk-on with no guarantee of playing time or financial aid. Instead, Owen accepted a scholarship offer from Division II North Greenville University in South Carolina. “I’m looking forward to seeing him play,” Dobbs said.

The next Nova volleyball season can wait a bit.

Farewell Dennis Denning, we knew you well

Dennis Denning, who passed away on November 16 at the age of 76, is being properly praised by many for his lengthy and highly successful coaching career that included winning a pair of NCAA titles at the University of Saint Thomas and six state high school crowns at Cretin-Derham Hall. Prior to that he was a grade school basketball and baseball coach at Saint Luke’s and Nativity.  

What isn’t as well known is the role Denning played in the longest uninterrupted professional baseball game ever played in the United States. 

Denning never forgot what happened on June 14, 1966. At the time, he was a third baseman for Miami, the Baltimore Orioles’ affiliate in the Florida State League. On that warm evening, the Marlins were at Saint Petersburg, which was managed by Sparky Anderson. Denning had two hits in the game, normally something to be pleased with. However, it came in 11 at-bats as the two teams slogged their way through the seven-hour, 29-inning marathon that ended with Miami winning 4-3.  

dennis denning
Dennis Denning at CDH in 1989. Photo by Mike Long

It was a game in which Denning was nearly the hero. In the 22nd inning, he drilled a shot to deep left field that initially looked like it would go out, only to see left fielder Bob Taylor haul the ball in on the warning track. It took seven more innings before the Marlins pushed over a run to decide the game that ended at 2:29 a.m. When he finally got home, Dennis’ wife was a little suspicious regarding his whereabouts that night. He produced the box score to prove he hadn’t been out enjoying a night on the town.  

Occasionally, Denning would bring that game up to his players as a reminder that baseball isn’t a game run by a clock and that nothing is decided until the final out is recorded.  

Although he also served as an athletic director in grade school and high school, Denning was happiest when he was on a baseball field—whether it was 80 degrees with no breeze or 35 and drizzling. Either way, his teams would be dressed and ready to play well before the first pitch.  

But he was also more than a coach. Denning understood people. Steve Aronson was an outstanding hockey player at Saint Thomas who also loved baseball. Indoor baseball practices started on February 1 while the hockey season was still in full swing, and Denning assured Aronson he’d get his chance to earn a spot in the lineup after the hockey season ended. As soon as hockey was over, Aronson traded his skates for spikes. He ended up being a regular on two NCAA second-place finishers in baseball.

“He’s my kind of guy,” Denning once said of Aronson. “He loves to play and he’ll do anything necessary to win.”  

Just like his coach was. 

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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