Morken put tiny M-C on volleyball map
MABEL — The principal at tiny Mabel-Canton High School didn’t have the luxury of being picky when it was time to hire a new varsity volleyball coach back in 1994.
"I think I was the only applicant," recalled Lonnie Morken, who was 22 at the time and just a year out of Luther College. His coaching resume consisted of one year as the junior varsity coach at Spring Grove.
Lowell Haroldson, the since-retired principal, welcomed aboard the green-but-eager Morken with little expectations and some memorable career advice:
"(Haroldson) said ‘You’ll be asked back (the next season) as long you don’t hit a kid and you don’t lose to North Winneshiek (Iowa),’ " Morken related with a chuckle.
"They took a big chance on me, a kid with very little coaching experience. I have thanked Lowell many times since then."
Haroldson probably deserves more credit for seeing a diamond in the rough, because his "big chance" was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame over the weekend at the 2011 state tournament in St. Paul.
The 40-year-old Morken has turned Mabel-Canton into a consistent winner in his 18 seasons as head coach, with a 459-96 career record, 14 Southeast Conference crowns, nine Section 1A East titles, and a pair Section 1A championships in 2000 and 2001.
The Junior Olympic program that Morken established shortly after arriving at M-C brought together a talented 12-and-under team that included Molly Horihan, Jenni Aasum, Holly Pierce and Shelby Bigalk.
"That group laid the foundation; they won our first conference and our first subsection titles," said Morken whose teams have averaged 28 wins over the last 14 seasons, and finished 31-4 this year with a second-round 3-2 loss to a veteran Lewiston-Altura team.
"I think, without a doubt, Lonnie is one of the very best volleyball coaches in Minnesota," said Stewartville head coach John Dzubay, one of Morken’s longtime coaching mentors along with Caledonia coach Scott Koepke and retired Apple Valley coach Walt Weaver.
"He's had a few tall, talented players, over the years, but for the most part he just develops a love for the game in his kids and somehow gets everyone to play at a high level," Dzubay said. "He has very small numbers to work with compared to his competitors, but his ability to get the most out of his players insures that he has a quality team every year."
Morken, a 1989 Spring Grove graduate, has also been a tireless champion and promoter of volleyball in Minnesota, and he has served the MVCA in many offices for 14 years.
During his two-year term as the coaches’ association’s president he affected some major changes, including getting rosters expanded from 12 to 15 players, and allowing teams to play 15 sets instead of 12 at invitational tournaments.
Staying put, for now
Morken has flirted with the possibility of coaching at the college level and recently interviewed for the head job at Luther, his alma mater.
"Two years ago I interviewed at Luther for the first time; I was one of the two finalists but I didn’t get the job," he revealed. "Then last year I went back down and interviewed again, and the same thing happened; I was one of two finalists but I didn’t get it."
Morken wasn’t too disappointed. He and wife Stephanie have stable teaching careers; she has taught first grade at North Winneshiek, 10 miles across the Iowa border, for as long as Lonnie has been at M-C. They’re happily raising their three daughters —Sadie, 9, Sophie, 6, and Sahara, 4 —in the M-C school district.
"I still have the youth and energy to try something new; I think it would have been fun," he said. "But I’m not really looking to coach college; that would be about the only job I would consider."
Morken, who teaches elementary phy-ed, said he is content at M-C despite a decline in enrollment that has the school district concerned. There are 93 kids in grades 9-12 this year, but it wasn’t long ago when there were 30 to 40 in each class. There are only 11 in this year’s kindergarten class.
"It’s a challenge coaching in a small school, but I see our (volleyball) success continuing, I really do," he said. "Our 12-and-under (J.O.) team was 43-1 in the spring, so we have some good younger kids. We‘ll be good as long as we work our tails off."
Morken said he isn’t going anywhere, and that’s a good feeling.
"I can’t picture myself not doing this; it would be weird," he said. "I have 25 years of teaching left, and right now I plan to coach until I retire."