Area volleyball standouts qualify for nationals with Southwest Juniors

For the members of the Southwest MN Juniors 18s volleyball team, the time for what-ifs has passed.

This past weekend, the what-ifs became what’s next for the team with a first-place finish at the Northern Lights Qualifier volleyball tournament in Minneapolis, extending its tournament winning streak to four.

“Our goal is to always try to get better as a team,” said head coach Raftyn Rignell, who is also an assistant coach at Southwest Minnesota State University. “The more good teams we can come up against to get used to a high level of competition, the better. That is why this weekend was so valuable for us

“We were talking three days of good teams to play against, where nationals is four days of tough teams every day. Getting our kids used to playing at a high level that many days in a row is a good experience.”

The team lost only one match over the weekend en route to its championship, for a real team-building experience.

“We wanted to go into it and come out in first place,” said Marshall’s Kenzie Beekman. “We weren’t really going to give up. There were times where we were down, but we fought through it.”

The roster for the Southwest MN Juniors team brings together some of the best volleyball players in the area, including Independent Player of the Year Beekman, Independent first-teamers Sydney Griffin and Hannah Bennett of Marshall, and Taylor Reiss and Megan Larson of Minneota, second-teamer Hannah Jessen of Canby and honorable mention Tegan VanMoer of Lakeview.

Adding in players from Jackson County Central, Worthington and Willmar just adds more talent to the mix.

“I think it’s just good for volleyball in general in the area, to have those kids come together and play,” Rignell said. “It’s fun and good for them to see high-level competition from other areas of the United States.”

In opening pool play on Friday, the Southwest MN team won all three of their matches, defeating teams from Missouri, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

On Saturday the team lost its second match of the day, falling to the Nebraska Impact, after defeating the Victory 18 Elite team out of Texas.

“We just knew we had to win the next one. Our coach told us that we would possibly have a playoff game,” Larson said. “We just knew we had to go out and play our best in the next game so we could win the pool.”

The team did just that, defeating one of the host teams, Mizuno Northern Lights 18-B out of the Twin Cities, to force a three-way tie of 2-1 teams.

Thanks to a higher set percentage, the girls escaped a playoff scenario, advancing to the Gold bracket of the USA Division Championship.

“We actually got into a three-way tie for first on Saturday in our pool. We won our pool based on a set-percentage win, which was a second-tier tiebreaker,” Rignell said. “We actually got out of the whole having-to-play-it-out challenge match by winning the set-percentage portion of the tiebreaker, so that was nice.”

The girls were playing short-handed on Saturday as the Marshall girls all returned for another spring staple – prom.

“We were missing a couple kids on Saturday due to a conflict, so we didn’t have our whole team the whole weekend,” Rignell said. “But it was good for other kids to have to step up and contribute for us at a high level.”

The Sunday finale ended with three solid victories, including the championship win over the Nebraska Impact, the team that beat them on Saturday.

“They were a really good team,” Beekman said. “They had a lot of good hitters and were scrappy. It was frustrating but fun.”

“It was really nerve-wracking,” Larson added. “They were so close to us.”

The championship gave the Southwest MN Juniors a bid to the USA Volleyball National Championships, but the team had already committed to the AAU National Championships.

“We go to the AAU nationals, which is in Orlando (Florida), through our club, and we do not need to qualify for that tournament,” Rignell said. “We’ve kinda gone that route the last couple of years. The competitive level there is still really high.

“With our club, we used to go to the USAV nationals. That’s the one we just qualified for. That one is at a different location every year. It’s harder to plan for. That’s kind of the biggest difference between the two. Both are pretty competitive.”

The team has three more tournaments where it can fine tune its game before the AAU Junior Nationals begin in late June.

“I think the highest any team I’ve coached at AAU Nationals is runner up,” Rignell said. “Our goal for that one is to go down there and win it. We have about a month-and-a-half to prepare and get as good as we can before that.”