Shakopee and Eastview are in different conferences, but the two schools have developed an outstanding volleyball rivalry. And in Tuesday night’s season opener for both teams, a definite tone was set.
Shakopee capped a three-year string of Class 3A state championships with an undefeated season in 2009, but the graduation losses were substantial. The Sabers had several seniors a year ago who now play Division I volleyball, including 2009 Gatorade national player of the year Ashley Wittman, a three-year ball-pounding force for Shakopee and now a star for the University of Minnesota.
So it was probably no great surprise when the Sabers were not among the top 10 teams in the preseason Class 3A poll conducted by the volleyball coaches association. Eastview was No. 3; Shakopee received enough votes to place the Sabers 12th in the rankings.
Going into Tuesday night’s opener, the conventional thinking was that No. 3 should be able to beat a non-top 10 team. Not so fast, conventional thinkers…
Shakopee defeated the Lightning 25-18, 25-17, 14-25, 25-19 and made a strong statement that the Sabers are not going away.
“They’re not going to be a gimme, especially with their tradition,” said Eastview coach Becky Egan. “You can’t fight tradition; it doesn’t matter how many girls you lose. It’s disappointing I’m sure for them (to not be in the top 10) and at the same time I don’t like being No. 3 at the beginning of the season.”
(To see a photo gallery of the match, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.).
The biggest celebrity in the crowd was Wittman, who wore a Gophers shirt as she watched her former team. Early in the match, Shakopee athletic director John Janke had the quote of the night when he said to me, “This is a top 10 team against a team that’s looking for its identity, and that identity is standing over there in a Gophers shirt.”
Indeed, it was an interesting scene: Ashley Wittman was watching, like everyone else, to see what it’s like for Shakopee to play volleyball without Ashley Wittman.
If there were any doubts about the Sabers’ ability to come through with a victory, they peaked when Eastview won the third game.
“One of our goals is if we play a five-game match, we win it,” Sabers coach Matt Busch said. “I didn’t want to do that tonight. So I’m very proud of them for picking it up.
“(Eastview is) a really good team and they have a great program. This is a really big one for us. The girls knew they could compete, it was just getting through that mental hurdle. And with all these people wanting to see that continue, that was probably a big confidence builder for them.”
Even though the school year has not yet begun, the atmosphere Tuesday night had a postseason feel. The Shakopee student section was large and boisterous, with some of the boys decked out in bathrobes and slippers (I didn't ask for an explanation, but you can see a video of the crowd on Facebook). The music was cranked up during timeouts, with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” laying the groundwork for the fourth game.
This was the third year that Eastview and Shakopee have opened the season against each other. They also ended the 2008 season in the same fashion, with Shakopee defeating the Lightning.
“This was very telling,” Egan said. “You see glimpses of the athletic ability that we have and then you see glimpses of immaturity. You see glimpses of the competitiveness and the lack of competitiveness. You could tell what’s going to bite you in the butt and what’s going to help you win. So it was telling.”
--I tried to send a Twitter message (yes, technically a Tweet) containing a photo from the match and the news that Shakopee had won the first two games. The technology didn’t want to work from inside the gym, so I walked out to the school doors, stuck my smart phone outside and hit the “send” button again. Success!
--I ran into an old friend after the match when Don Murtha walked up and shook my hand. Don’s grandson Lydon Murtha was a football lineman at Hutchinson who went on to an outstanding college career at Nebraska, was drafted by the Detroit Lions and is now with the Miami Dolphins. Don has another talented grandchild, Ashley Murtha, playing volleyball at Eastview.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 29
*Miles John has driven: 1,140
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