People looking for great collegiate volleyball this season need look no further than the state of Minnesota.
The top-ranked teams in women’s NCAA Divisions I and II, the second-ranked team in NCAA Division II, and the tenth-ranked team in NCAA Division III (down from the No. 2 spot last week) currently all hail from the North Star State. In Division I, the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis hold the top spot. Southwest Minnesota State leads NCAA Division II, followed by the Golden Bears at perennial powerhouse and returning national champion Concordia University, St. Paul. Also in the city of Saint Paul is the No. 10 team in Division III, the University of Northwestern-St. Paul Eagles.
“I think there’s a lot of good clubs and a lot of good high schools, so there’s some good coaching going on,” said Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon. “There’s a lot of good college programs, a lot of good strength and depth. We’re all kind of working together.”
Indoor volleyball has a long history in Minnesota. The sport, originally invented in Massachusetts in the 1890s by YMCA physical director William G. Morgan, was one of several that served as good exercise through the long northern winters.
“Minneapolis, city of athletes…goes right on ‘keeping fit’ physically after Old Man Winter has laid his heavy hand upon the golf course, the bass lake, the tennis court, the playground and the woodland path,” read the Sunday Journal on October 9, 1921. “With more than 5,000 of its men, women, boys and girls taking gymnasium exercise regularly, Minneapolis probably stands alone among cities of its size, in the United States, at least, in keeping fit.”
At least as far back as 1919, the Minneapolis YWCA ran sports, dancing, social, and faith programs for women. Those women, some of whom came from the Russian, Polish, and Slovak immigrant communities, signed up for sports like basketball, “kitten ball” (like softball), tennis, and volleyball.
A Minnesota History Magazine article on a New Deal-era community housing project in Duluth, Minnesota cites a “ladies volleyball team” as a noteworthy player in the community’s social events. According to a scrapbook of clippings and memorabilia about the Duluth Homesteads, in the late 1940s the team “traveled around the area ‘playing neighboring towns’ and ‘at the Proctor Fair.’”
The Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women ran U.S. women’s college volleyball through the 1970s before ceding power to the NCAA. The first NCAA women’s volleyball tournaments in Divisions I, II, and III were held in 1981. Concordia has won eight national titles since then.
— CSP Volleyball (@CSPBearsVB) November 16, 2016
Today, the North Star State is a powerhouse for girls’ and women’s volleyball. Intensive club programs like Northern Lights and M1 develop athletes early and help them get seen by college coaches. Consistently successful college programs like Minnesota and Concordia, St. Paul bring positive local attention to the sport. Minnesota’s McCutcheon pointed to Division II Concordia as an example of a successful program; Concordia head coach Brady Starkey pointed back to McCutcheon’s Gophers. At Concordia this year, the entire roster is from the state of Minnesota.
“We’re not opposed to recruiting outside of Minnesota,” said Starkey, who himself grew up in southeast Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota. This is his 15th season coaching the Golden Bears. “We just happen to have a pretty good group.”
“[That the whole team is from Minnesota] is something we acknowledge, and it is kind of funny. It’s not something we focus on, but to be honest, the state of Minnesota just has volleyball talent,” said Concordia senior middle blocker Shelby Seurer. “So [Starkey] can recruit in the state of Minnesota and still get really good girls to come to his program. He doesn’t really have to go much further. A lot of us are just comfortable around here.”
Starkey and his staff have long-standing relationships with club coaches in the area, people they trust to know the personalities and playing tendencies of recruits. But because Minnesota club teams travel all over the country for tournaments, Starkey travels as well, so his recruiting budget doesn’t get much relief.
University of Northwestern-St. Paul coach Beth Wilmeth, who played the last two years of her own college career for the Eagles, also recruits quite a bit locally. At Northwestern, the recruiting process is a little trickier for a few reasons — first, Division III coaches can’t offer any athletic scholarships, and Wilmeth doesn’t have a recruiting budget. Northwestern also has unique admissions requirements: In their applications, prospective students fill out a “Personal Faith Statement” in which they describe their relationship with Jesus Christ.
“I can’t just go out to a club tournament and watch a qualifier…because I have no idea a lot of times where they’re at with that topic,” Wilmeth said. So she relies heavily on players who come to her and has found great talent there.
“We appreciate how deep Minnesota volleyball is, because we can recruit locally and get high-level players,” Wilmeth said. “[The University of Minnesota Golden] Gophers are gonna take theirs, Concordia, St. Paul’s gonna take theirs, and there’s still a lot left.”
University of Northwestern senior setter Leesa Malone grew up in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and got into youth rec volleyball because all her friends played. She fell in love and started playing for club teams while teammate Kaylee Fuglestad grew up in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Fuglestad has noticed a strong family atmosphere around the Northwestern program, where 11 of 15 players on the roster are from Minnesota.
“It’s so cool because even some of the players that don’t play as much, their whole families come to every single game, even if their daughter isn’t playing,” Fuglestad said.
Concordia has a family vibe, too. “We’ve got a shot of convincing [players] to stay close to home so their parents can see them play,” Starkey said. That means his Division II team nabs Division I-level talent. “Pretty much if you would look at our whole conference, it’s a lot of kids that could go to some kind of Division I school and play volleyball there.”
“Our parents and our families are crazy. They are like die-hard for Golden Bear volleyball,” said Concordia’s Shelby Seurer. “Because they can be so hands-on, and it’s not in a bad way. They can follow us, they love to follow us. There’s a huge sense of community.”
University of Minnesota freshman outside hitter Jasmyn Martin grew up in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, less than 20 miles away, so her friends and family come to every game. She also talked about her team’s other fans, whom she called “loyal and genuine.”
“The atmosphere is like no other,” Martin said. It’s one of the things that sold her on the school. “There was nothing like Minnesota.”
— Minnesota Volleyball (@GopherVBall) September 4, 2017
All three teams — Minnesota, Concordia, and Northwestern — have their sights set high this year.
“I mean, super cliché, but natty champs,” Northwestern’s Malone said. “That’s everyone’s goal, I think.”
“The end goal is definitely to win another championship,” said Concordia’s Shelby Seurer. “We all understand that to get there we just have to focus on where we’re at at the moment.”
At the moment, the college volleyball world’s attention is focused on Minnesota.