40 years of volleyball
Since its inception in 1974, volleyball in Minnesota has evolved quite rapidly, in both participation and level of play. Perhaps nowhere in the state has become as prolific in the sport as the southwest Minnesota region, led by the Marshall volleyball program, which has made 25 state tournament appearances in the 40-year history of volleyball. And throughout the years, a handful of volleyball coaches in the area have been instrumental in elevating the level of play, leaving behind strong legacies and winning traditions in the game of volleyball.
Dave Ahmann coached the first Marshall High School volleyball team back in 1974 and still remembers the growing pains the program went through.
“I didn’t know anything about volleyball at all, but the good thing was, nobody else knew anything about volleyball either,” Ahmann said. “We were all starting the same. It was not very pretty. We would try to pass the ball as high as we could. We were up by the ceiling. How our setters set the ball I don’t know, but that was what you kind of did back in those days. It was not a very fast-paced game back then. We didn’t know any better, but when you look back now, it was slow and ugly. It’s changed so much now. You want to pass it and get it going as quick as you can.”
Ahmann coached at MHS from 1974-1984 and again from 1987-1990. He led the first Tiger volleyball team to the state tournament in 1977 and again in 1978. Marshall claimed state runner-up honors in Class AA in 1979.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 40 years until I walk into the gym again,” Ahmann said. “When you look back, it was ugly, but nobody knew any better. It’s just evolved so much since then.”
In those early years, Ahmann said that matches were 2-out-of-3 format. He noted that he took every opportunity he could to learn about volleyball, to help his teams be successful.
“Back in those days, we were really fortunate that a group of coaches, including a men’s and women’s Olympic coach and a bunch of coaches from UCLA and other places like that from the West Coast were in a little group and traveled around,” Ahmann said. “So Terry (Culhane) and I went to them in the cities and in Iowa one time, and we just picked their brain. And the biggest thing is we just went to a lot of clinics and camps and we got our kids to work hard.”
From 1975-1983, matches consisted of 2-out-of-3 series to 18 points. In 1984, the best of three-game series went back to 15 points. Marshall made state tournament appearances four times from 1980 to 1984, having missed the big show in 1982. Ahmann said he believes the game of volleyball changed the most during the early ’80s, partly because of new resources and the work done in the off-season.
“Volleyball continued to progress, and when I look back at Marshall, I think it was in the ’80s, with Mary Buysse (Byrne), Marti Larsen and those kids. Mary was a setter and started jump-setting more, and she started setting a quicker middle. We were the first ones to really kind of start some of that stuff.”
Culhane started as a volleyball coach in 1980, when he was searching for an elementary teaching position. He quickly found he had a passion for the game. Culhane will soon been starting his 11th season as the head volleyball coach at Southwest Minnesota State University and was recently reunited with Ahmann at the summer Mustang camps the past two weeks.
“I was looking for a teaching job, and the superintendent said I could teach sixth grade if I would also coach girls basketball and girls volleyball,” Culhane said. “They hadn’t even started playing volleyball interscholastically at Milroy yet. So that’s how it started.”
Culhane said he was fortunate to have been friends with Ahmann at the time, and he looked to the Marshall coach for guidance.
“I didn’t know anything about volleyball back then, but Dave had already been coaching and was one of the best coaches in the state of Minnesota at the time,” Culhane said. “We were good friends, so he was able to mentor me. That’s why we’re excited about the fact that Dave comes back to our camps. He clearly loves it, too.”
It didn’t take very long for Culhane to put together a winning combination on the court, taking his small-but-mighty Milroy teams to the Class A state volleyball tournaments in 1983 and 1984.
“We had small classes at Milroy, but we had some good athletes,” he said. “I would put some of those athletes to any of them that I’ve coached over the years. There just weren’t as many of them.”
Culhane then took over the paired Tracy-Milroy volleyball program and continued his success there. T-M made state tournament appearances in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989 (joined with Walnut Grove this year) before winning the state championship in 1990. Culhane also credits assistant coach Paul Soupir for his efforts throughout the years. Soupir is currently an assistant coach alongside Culhane at SMSU.
“Paul and I have coached together for well over 25 years,” Culhane said. “So obviously, we kind of know what each other is thinking.”
T-M continued its winning tradition under Culhane, winning the state volleyball championship in 1992. After making an appearance at state in 1993, T-M became one of the very few teams to earn a three-peat as state champions, collecting state titles in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Ahmann served as a volunteer coach throughout a number of those years.
“When I look back, I’ve just been so fortunate to have staff that I worked with who are good coaches,” Culhane said. “I’ve been really fortunate to be surrounded by quality coaches. I never considered myself ‘the head coach’ either. I always thought we coached our players together. I was able to give them responsibilities and they were able to take care of those duties.”
Success has followed Culhane wherever he has gone. In 11 seasons as head coach for T-M, Culhane guided the Panthers to 10 state tournament appearances, half of which resulted in state tournament championships. In 1997, Culhane became the head basketball coach at Marshall. In 2000, he began coaching volleyball at Marshall as well, leading the Tigers to three state appearances, including a state Class AAA runner-up finish in 2003, in his four seasons there. Throughout his 22 seasons as a high school volleyball coach, Culhane collected five Minnesota State Volleyball Coach of the Year awards and amassed an impressive 519-112 record. He was also inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“Clearly, there’s been a lot of success in volleyball in southwest Minnesota,” Culhane said. “A lot of good players have come from the high schools in this area. I think that’s a credit to the schools, players and coaches.”
In 2004, Culhane was named the head coach at his alma mater (SMSU), where he has also built a winning tradition. Culhane has guided the Mustangs to an overall record of 260-71, including a 150-34 record in the NSIC, and 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances. He has the ninth-best winning percentage (.785) among active coaches in NCAA Division II. Despite all of his accolades, which also include college coaching honors, Culhane remains humble.
“I’m a lot better coach when I have good players,” he said. “I’m a better coach when I have good coaches with me. And you just have to continue learning. I have a passion for teaching kids. I think you look at the qualities of a Paul Soupir, a Dan Westby, a Dave Ahmann, a Rick Haberman, and those coaches have an interest in helping kids, to try to make them better.”
Dan Westby took over the reins at Marshall in 2004 and is looking forward to his 11th season as the Tiger head coach this fall. Since taking the helm, Westby has led 10 straight Marshall volleyball teams to the state tournament, earning the Class AAA title in 2004, the Class AA title in 2007 and 2009 and a rare three-peat as state champions in Class AA from 2011 to 2013.
“You look at the programs that have had the most success, typically, are the ones who have built programs from younger ages up,” Culhane said. “Everybody has athletes go through and come out, but it’s better if you can work with them for a number of years. Look at Marshall and the program that Dan runs. They know that from a young level, what the expectation is and what’s it’s like to play as a Marshall Tiger. So those kids who want to do that buy into that and that’s why they’re successful.”
In September, the Tigers will host the 9th Annual Molten Southwest Minnesota Volleyball Challenge, which features a state record 32-team tournament.
CHANGES IN THE GAME
Girls high school volleyball has gained popularity across the state throughout the past four decades. Volleyball ranks second in Minnesota, with 453 participating schools and 15,124 participants, narrowly trailing track and field (15,589 participants), which is a sport that doesn’t limit the number of participants like volleyball does. Nationally, volleyball ranks third, behind track and field and basketball.
“It’s such a great woman’s game,” Ahmann said. “I like that it has a net in there, so we don’t have players banging against each other like in basketball and other sports. And I especially like the way the women play it versus the way the men do. Girls work so much harder than boys do.”
From 1985-2002, the Minnesota State High School League changed the match series to 3-out-of-5 games to 15 points. Beginning in 2003, the same year rally scoring was implemented, matches began being played to 25 points, which is still the present format.
Many other changes have occurred in volleyball, including rule changes such as allowing a back row specialist (libero) and serving anywhere along the back line. Most of those changes have helped add to the complexity and speed up the game.
“I really like the changes,” said Ahmann, who now lives and coaches in Arizona. “Kids are so well-trained today. And it’s really a different game, a much faster game.”
For the most part, the facets of the game have been fine-tuned throughout the years.
“We still have to serve, but now we jump serve,” Ahmann said. “Our passing is a little different, too, because we use angles now. Things have changed. We block more. And there was never a ‘quick set’ back then, but now there is and it’s all over the net. There’s also a slide. We never used to have that. We also never thought about hitting out of the back row.”
Early on, Ahmann remembers there were no organizations like North Country Region Volleyball or any Junior Olympic volleyball clubs. Now, nearly all the top players compete in club competition.
It’s not unusual to find 10- and 12-year-old club teams playing competitively nowadays. While it’s good to get extra touches on the volleyball, it’s best if the young players are taught correct technique.
“To keep up with everybody else, you do what everybody else does,” Culhane said. “The benefits are that players understand the game better. You have 12-year-olds that know what a 5-1 (five hitter, one setter offense) is, which is just an example of what has transpired in the game.”
Culhane noted that there was also a downside to starting too young or playing too much volleyball.
“There’s a lot less multi-sport athletes because kids believe they have to specialize,” he said. “It’s still better out here than it is in the metro, though. The other part I worry about is just the physical wear and tear on kids, with all the jumping and swinging. But there’s not an easy or good answer for it.”
From a recruiting standpoint, Culhane said there are also more good players now, which means more quality players to pick from.
“It’s because of all the playing they’ve done,” he said. “There’s exceptional players and a lot of other good players, too, who can play at the college level. And there’s so many different levels of college you can play at, too. There’s certainly a lot of kids out there playing, which is a wonderful opportunity for females.”
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Talented athletes, passionate coaches, community support, motivation and hard work seem to be common threads in successful programs. But like teachers in the classroom, every coach likely has a different perspective and philosophy on what works best.
“It takes hard work,” Ahmann said. “And it’s something that you can carry with you in everything you do. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t work very hard, it really doesn’t help very much. So motivation is a big thing. And if you have 10 kids, there’s probably 10 different motivators that you have to figure out. You also have to do things in the off-season or you don’t stand a chance.”
In the early years, Ahmann admits that he used to do a lot of screaming at his players, but later, he found that other methods seemed to work better.
“I’ve calmed down a lot more,” he said. “Back then, I thought you could just scare them into being a good player, but that actually tightens them up. So now, I use more encouragement and psychology. You have to play hard physically and play smart mentally.”
Despite having coached for so many years, Ahmann said he hasn’t kept up with the technique-driven gurus in southwest Minnesota.
“When I come back here and help with the camps, I think I’m breaking down the game pretty good, but then I get with Terry, Paul and Dan and I’m hardly even in the ballpark,” Ahmann said. “These guys are different than the coaches I work with in Arizona. We don’t do a lot of teaching or work on technique as much. So this is kind of my major volleyball fix. I have a blast at these camps.”
SMSU holds four annual volleyball camps (Intermediate, Advanced, Team and Young Mustang) in the summer, which provide participating players and coaches the opportunity to reach new heights at their respective high school.
“We try to zero in on all-around skills,” Culhane said. “We talk about being better volleyball players, not just position players. And it’s harder to coach now, especially with younger players and so many kids playing. Some coaches are exposed to the goods of the game but also the not-so-good parts of the game. There’s more parent involvement, too, which is a good thing and a bad thing. But the best kids work hard and the best coaches have a passion to help kids.”
SMSU’s Southwest Minnesota Juniors Volleyball program has also helped train countless athletes, many of whom have gone on to play at the collegiate level, for roughly 30 years. Recently, the 18s team, including Marshall’s Kenzie Beekman, Hannah and Haley Bennett and Marah Mulso, Minneota’s Taylor Reiss and Megan Larson and Southwest United’s Courtney Place, won the USA Volleyball Junior National Championship. A number of those players have returned to their high school programs and helped to elevate the level of play there. Minneota was the Class A state runner-up in 2001, followed by state tournament appearances the next two years and a runner-up finish in 2005 before winning the state championship in 2006. In 2009, the Vikings earned runner-up honors again. The team has finished third at state the past four years. Tracy-Milroy added a Class AA state championship in 2001 and as Tracy-Milroy-Balaton in 2004.