Volleyball: Mabel-Canton has big expectations
The Minnesota State High School League record book shows that the Mabel-Canton volleyball team hasn’t qualified for the Class A state tournament since 2001.
Technically, that is accurate.
The 30,000-foot view of the state of the Cougars’ program over the past two decades would show that they have been among the state’s best, year-in and year-out, regardless of when or where their season has ended.
And, to be certain, the Section One, Class A tournament has often been considered a mini-state tournament, with powers such as Caledonia, Faribault Bethlehem Academy, Wabasha-Kellogg, Hayfield and Fillmore Central annually standing between Mabel-Canton and the Xcel Energy Center.
“For years we’ve run into Faribault B.A. or Fillmore Central or Wabasha-Kellogg when they had their teams that went to state,” said M-C head coach Lonnie Morken, now in his 25th season at the helm of the program. “We just keep working and plugging away.
“One of these years we’ll get back. It’s not for lack of effort.”
The Cougars have been perhaps the most consistent program in the state under Morken, averaging 27.1 victories per season, but with only two trips to state to show for it — in 2000 and 2001.
Since Mabel-Canton’s last trip to state, Faribault B.A. has made it to the state title match 12 times, Wabasha-Kellogg won the state title in 2010, Fillmore Central reached the final in 2013 and Caledonia reached the title match in 2016.
All of those teams are again potential road blocks to the Cougars’ state-tournament hopes, but the No. 5-ranked Cougars are also a road block to all other teams in the section.
“We never use the word ‘perfect,’” said Morken, who has a career record of 671-126 at Mabel-Canton. “We don’t ask our players to be perfect. But we do talk about striving for consistency, making smart decisions, eliminating errors and serving aggressively to get the other team out of their system.”
Not much rattles this season’s Cougars; they play — and win — with a lineup that regularly doesn’t feature a player taller than 5-foot-6.
Their top hitter, senior Lexi Thorson, is 5-5. But the Cougars counter that lack of height by playing as a team, making smart plays and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents.
“A lot of (the success) starts with what we do in our elementary program,” said Morken, who regularly works with the youth coaches and players at Mabel-Canton schools. “It starts with passing consistently, strong serving and minimizing errors.”
AN EARLY ADJUSTMENT
The Cougars are 22-2 and on the brink of clinching their 21st Southeast Conference championship under Morken as they hit the final week of their regular season.
They have already avenged one of their losses — beating SEC rival Spring Grove twice after losing to it in Mabel-Canton’s own invitational just a week into the season.
“We were excited for that Spring Grove match (last Tuesday, a 3-1 M-C win),” Morken said, “but we didn’t want to win that one and have it be the high point of our season. We have some bigger goals, too. We want to compete for the subsection and section titles.”
The Cougars’ other loss came against No. 1-ranked Minneota; a loss that could be avenged if the teams manage to meet in the state tournament.
But that first loss, the one on M-C’s home court on Sept. 1, sparked an early turnaround. The Cougars opened the season experimenting with a 6-2 offense, which features two setters on the court.
After the setback against rival Spring Grove, Morken had the Cougars revert to a 5-1 offense, with sophomore Kenidi McCabe handling all the setting duties. Not only have the Cougars gone 13-1 since that switch, they have lost a total of just three sets.
Morken said the Cougars’ success is due largely to the unselfishness of its players. Seniors Thorson, Maddy Michels, Hannah Snell, and sophomores McCabe and Jordyn Newgard have all been asked to shuffle positions at some point this season, whether due to a coach’s decision or because of injuries to others.
“Other than the loss to Minneota, we’ve played really good volleyball,” Morken said. “It’s not easy at times because of our lack of size, but our ball control and accuracy have been so strong, and we’ve been mentally strong.”