John’s Journal: Lots Of Reasons To Smile At Mabel-Canton
On Heels Of Memorable Trip To State, Volleyball Coach Lonnie Morken Reaches 800 Career Wins
Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2023 - 5:15 PM
MABEL -- Lonnie Morken smiles all the time. And he has plenty of reasons to smile. The volleyball coach at Mabel-Canton High School has built one of the state’s top programs during 30 years there, the team is undefeated this season and coming off a third-place finish at last year’s Class A state tournament.
Early this season, Morken, 52, became only the fourth volleyball coach in Minnesota history to record 800 career wins. That’s another reason to smile.
Lonnie and his wife Stephanie are parents of three daughters; Sadie is 22 and works as a para-professional at Mabel-Canton (where Lonnie and Stephanie teach), Sophie graduated last spring and is playing volleyball at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, and Sahara is a junior on the volleyball team. Smile? You bet.
Everybody involved in volleyball knows Lonnie Morken and smiles at the mention of his name. He’s the coach who has never been seen wearing anything but short pants; his fashion choice will be interesting when he is inducted into the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Oct. 14, by tradition a coat-and-tie event. (He was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011.)
He graduated from high school in Spring Grove in 1989 and Luther College in Iowa in 1993; Spring Grove is eight miles east of Mabel and Luther is 18 miles south. Morken is a fixture in that region, but rewind the tape 32 years or so to a time when Morken was uncertain of his future in the area and considered moving away. That seems unthinkable now.
How he got involved in volleyball, and how he remained close to home, is a story that leans on serendipity, fortune and maybe just a bit of good timing.
As a high school student he served as a line judge at Spring Grove home volleyball matches, so he got to know something about the sport. A three-sport athlete himself, he played basketball and baseball as a college freshman before a shoulder injury on the baseball field delayed his sophomore season on the Luther basketball team.
Unable to play basketball, he began hanging out with male friends who played on Luther’s club volleyball team. He earned work-study money by line judging Luther women’s volleyball matches and being around the game so much made him fall in love with the sport.
“It’s funny how your life experiences shape and mold you,” he said.
He graduated from Luther with a goal to teach physical education and coach volleyball close to home, which didn’t work out right away. He found work as a substitute teacher, but finding a permanent position was tough. He interviewed at schools in Minnesota and Iowa but wasn’t hired.
He was hired to help coach junior varsity volleyball back in Spring Grove in the fall of 1993, admitting, “I had played a little but really knew nothing about volleyball.” He checked out library books about the game and got to work.
In that first year as a coach, the Spring Grove JV team was unbeaten and the freshman team lost only once, which may have opened some eyes about the young coach. But he still didn’t have a teaching job and was considering moving four or five hours away to wherever he could get hired.
And then the head coaching job in Mabel opened up and some of Morken’s friends encouraged him to apply. He was hired to coach but was still looking at teaching on a substitute basis. And then – smile! – a teaching position that fit his qualifications became available at Mabel.
The year before he became coach, the Cougars recorded zero wins. They won six times in his first year, then seven, then 12 and in his fourth year they won 17 times.
“In those first few years I was trying to figure out how to coach volleyball and mentor players,” he said.
Reaching the 800-victory club is very special to Morken. No. 800 came during a Sept. 2 tournament in Floodwood, and a home win over Kingsland on Tuesday was his 804th. Previous coaches to reach 800 were Gail Nucech of Hibbing in 2007, Milan Mader of Lakeville in 2010 and John Dzubay of Stewartville in 2012. Dzubay is the only other active coach on the list.
“It’s really humbling, for one,” Morken said. “When I hear John and Milan and Gail , they’re the pioneers, right? There were trailblazers before me. As a young coach, I called and emailed them with questions.
“I have an overwhelming level of gratitude toward the volleyball community. I try to be an ambassador and give back to other coaches now. If I hadn’t been so well received by the volleyball community I might not have stuck with it.”
Bethany Moen, who was an eighth-grade volleyball player in Mabel when Morken came to town, has now been an assistant coach for 22 years.
“As a young adult, he had a purpose and a point and he had a plan,” she said. “And I think he was more regimented at that time. Obviously getting married and having children softened Lonnie a little bit and the Lonnie I see today is definitely different. I think he's evolved with the girls at the right pace and speed.”
This year’s Mabel-Canton team is ranked No. 2 Class 1A behind Minneota. They are unbeaten in their first 11 matches this season, the latest a 3-0 sweep of visiting Kingsland that lasted 46 minutes. With no seniors on the roster, the Cougars’ effort was balanced: Sahara Morken had 30 assists, 12 digs and five aces, Lydia Vatland had three aces, Kailey Ingvalson had 10 kills, Saijal Slafter had nine kills and Kinley Soiney had 13 kills and three aces.
Asked to describe her father as a coach, Sahara smiled and said, “He really doesn't yell that much, even if he's upset. He doesn't yell and he's very clear about what he says to you. And he treats all of us the same. He knows what he's talking about.”
Mabel-Canton’s trip to the state tournament last season was special for several reasons. One was the opportunity for all of Lonnie Morken’s friends in the sport to celebrate with him, another was ending a long drought of state appearances. The Cougars finished fifth at state in 2000 and third in 2001, and then waited it out against some of the best small-school competition in the state before returning to the big show in 2022. From 2002 to 2021 they lost in section championship matches 10 times.
Mabel-Canton finished 36-3 last season. The only seniors on that team were Sophie Morken and Makenzie Kelly. So this year’s team is experienced, although the Cougars are playing without junior hitter Hope Erickson, who suffered a wrist injury in a preseason scrimmage. The Cougars are hoping Erickson will be able to return before the postseason begins.
“We want to make sure we peak at the right time,” said the coach. “Not having Hope right now should help us develop depth.”
If all goes well and a few bounces go their way, the Cougars may get back to state without another two-decade wait.
“It was a lot of fun,” Sahara Morken said of last year’s experience. “That's all we talked about, that whole week and for like three weeks after. We talked about how exciting it was.
“All of us are so determined to go back because we had so much fun last year and everyone's goal is to get to state this year. We all want it so bad.”
No matter how or where the season ends, Lonnie Morken’s positive impact on his community and volleyball all over Minnesota continues to produce smiles.
“He is dedicated to Mabel-Canton, to the girls, to the families,” said Moen. “It’s a family endeavor; it's not him and it's not the girls but it's everybody.”
OK everybody. Smile.
--MSHSL senior content creator 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]