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John’s Journal: Home Sweet Home In Downtown St. Paul

Long Trips, Short Trips To State Volleyball Tournament

Posted: Thursday, November 11, 2021 - 1:18 PM

Mounds Park Academy

Mounds Park Academy coach Jeff Kunze-Hoeg and players Kaija Kunze-Hoeg and Lola Pilon.

Volleyball teams come from far and wide to the state tournament, where the destination all season long is Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul. This year for example, the Breckenridge Cowgirls drove 212 miles to play at state, the Hawley Nuggets drove 233 miles and the Badger/Greenbush-Middle River Gators spent six hours on the highway, covering 355 miles between home and downtown St. Paul.

But not every team travels long distances to get to state. Two of the most intriguing stories of the week are centered on hometown teams from schools located right in St. Paul. Let’s start with Mounds Park Academy, which is only eight miles from Xcel Energy Center.

The unseeded Panthers dropped some heavy ordnance in Thursday’s Class 2A quarterfinals, defeating top-seeded Southwest Christian 26-24, 20-25, 25-22, 18-25, 15-11.

Mounds Park Academy is not an unknown in volleyball circles. They played in the Class 1A state tournament in 2019 – the last time a state tourney was held – and played a five-set match with Fosston in the quarterfinals. They lost that time.

After moving up to 2A, their 26-4 record this fall wasn’t enough to convince the tournament coaches to make them one of the five seeded teams. A random draw matched them with Southwest Christian.

As Mounds Park Academy junior Lola Pinon put it after the big win, “The people that have nothing to lose are the scariest people.”

The Panthers also were not ranked in the final Class 2A coaches poll, which was kind of a ho-hum thing.

“We've always been considered the underdog because we're unranked,” said coach Jeff Kunze-Hoeg.

The experience of playing at state two years ago was important Thursday.

“I was really frazzled the first time and then today I was like, ‘I belong here,’ ” said Pilon. “I want to prove that we belong here as a team, and it was just better to have that experience.”

The two teams had met in a tournament in Burnsville this season, with Southwest Christian winning 2-1. The Panthers had played a five-set match only once before state, defeating Nova Classical Academy 3-2 in the Section 4 title match.

The Panthers came out strong Thursday, winning the first set and putting the Stars on their heels. Southwest Christian coach Jessy Tow-Arnett said, “I knew they were going to be a great opponent. They're smart players. They just they make smart plays. They’re not flashy, but there are a lot of athletes out there.”

The Stars came in with a record of 29-3, losing only to Class 3A teams Lakeville North, Eagan and Rogers. They will meet Annandale in the consolation bracket on Friday, while Mounds Park Academy will face Jackson County Central in the semifinals.

Great Scots Are Back After 44 Years

Until Wednesday, St. Paul Highland Park High School had not played in the state volleyball tournament since 1977. Forty-four years is a long time to wait, even if the distance between the school and Xcel Energy Center is just five miles. … which, according to Google Maps, can be traversed in 26 minutes on a bicycle.

The big arena has been standing in downtown St. Paul for two decades, and considering the Scots’ long absence from the state tourney, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that some of the Highland Park players had never set foot inside the Xcel Center until this week

Highland Park senior Azeria Stagg’s first look inside of the big barn came when the Scots arrived for their Class 3A state quarterfinal match with Marshall.

“For me personally, I've never been to the Xcel Energy Center, so I was honored to play here and have the opportunity to play with my team, my seniors,” she said after the Scots were defeated 3-0. “The lights were so bright, and it was very nerve-wracking with such a big crowd.”

Another Highland Park senior, Kiyomi Callahan, said, “It's kind of an amazing experience. It’s completely different than being in a gym, with all the lights on you here. It was a pretty cool opportunity that we got to take this year. And it’s an amazing way to end our senior year. We are ready to go back on Friday.”

The Scots will face Monticello in the consolation bracket on Friday, giving them at least one more match inside their hometown arena. The winner will play for a third time, in Saturday’s fifth-place match.

Scots coach Sonje Odegard, who spent two years as an assistant before becoming head coach this season, knew the challenge was large against Marshall, which has played in 10 state championship matches since 2004, winning six times.

Marshall is known for being a great team, but I'm really glad we have the opportunity to play this high level of volleyball and really get pushed,” she said. “And we were just grateful. Honestly, we're grateful to be here. I think our goal is to make the most of this and come back Friday and enjoy this.”

Vikings, Packers and Volleyball

Maysa Gillingham, a senior at Class 3A Marshall, is the granddaughter of Gale Gillingham, who graduated from Little Falls High School, played at the University of Minnesota and spent 10 years with the Green Bay Packers. He played in five Pro Bowls and was the inaugural winner of the Forrest Gregg Award as the NFL Offensive Lineman of the Year following the 1970 season. 

Lakeville South freshman Josie Tingelhoff is the granddaughter of Vikings great Mick Tingelhoff. After playing at Nebraska, Mick Tingelhoff signed as a free agent with the Vikings in 1962 and went on to become one of the team’s all-time stars, named to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2015. He became the Vikings’ starting center in his rookie season and held that spot until he retired in 1978. He started 240 consecutive games.

Gale Gillingham passed away in 2011 and Mick Tingelhoff died in September.

State Volleyball Tournament

Wednesday’s Quarterfinals

Class 4A

Wayzata defeats Roseville 25-9, 25-9, 25-14

Rogers defeats Lakeville North 21-25, 25-15, 25-19, 26-24

Eden Prairie defeats Forest Lake 24-26, 24-26, 25-22, 25-18, 21-19

East Ridge defeats Bloomington Jefferson 11-25, 25-17, 25-21, 28-26.

Thursday’s semifinals

Wayzata defeats Rogers 25-23, 25-11, 25-15

East Ridge defeats Eden Prairie 25-13, 25-20, 20-25, 25-17

Class 3A

Marshall defeats St. Paul Highland Park 25-14, 25-4, 25-10

Grand Rapids defeats Monticello 23-25, 25-15, 25-13, 25-16

Kasson-Mantorville defeats Sauk Rapids-Rice 25-16, 25-11, 25-15

New Prague defeats Chisago Lakes 20-25, 25-17, 25-19, 25-11

Friday’s semifinals

Marshall vs. Grand Rapids

Kasson-Mantorville vs. New Prague

Thursday’s Quarterfinals

Class 2A

Mounds Park Academy defeats Southwest Christian 26-24, 20-25, 25-22, 18-25, 15-11

Jackson County Central defeats Annandale 25-15, 25-14, 25-19

Hawley defeats Cannon Falls 25-21, 18-25, 13-25, 25-23, 15-11

Sauk Centre defeats Greenway 25-18, 25-19, 19-25, 25-10

Friday’s semifinals

Mounds Park Academy vs. Jackson County Central

Hawley vs. Sauk Centre

Class 1A

Mayer Lutheran defeats South Ridge 25-4, 25-10, 25-16

Bethlehem Academy defeats Breckenridge 25-12, 25-15, 25-14

Minneota defeats Badger/Greenbush-Middle River 25-15, 25-13, 25-11

Walker-Hackensack-Akeley defeats Legacy Christian 25-11, 25-11, 25-11

Friday’s semifinals

Mayer Lutheran vs. Bethlehem Academy

Minneota vs. Walker-Hackensack-Akeley 

For complete brackets, click here:

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

Highland Park

Highland Park coach Sonje Odegard with players Kiyomi Callahan and Azeria Stagg.

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Volleyball State Tournament: Day 2 Recap