Grand Meadow suddenly a volleyball contender
Successive wins over powers Lanesboro and Mabel-Canton has put the Superlarks on the Section 1A volleyball map.
So did River Landers see this coming?
Well, no. At least not this summer when she and her Grand Meadow volleyball teammates were gathering in the Superlarks’ gymnasium and working on their bumps, sets, serves and spikes together.
The senior would not have predicted then that her team would do something this fall that she’d only previously dreamed about — beat the forever best team in the Southeast Conference, Mabel-Canton.
But the Larks did, getting it done in five games on Tuesday night in the Mabel-Canton gymnasium. It didn’t officially go down as a conference match, it being in the regular-season ending SEC Showcase.
But it sure resonated with Landers and her teammates, who the night before also took down powerful Lanesboro in five games.
That 17-25, 25-16, 16-25, 25-22, 15-9 win over Mabel-Canton was especially emotional for Landers, one of three senior captains on this team.
“Since I was a sophomore, every year I’d say, ‘This is our year to finally beat Mabel-Canton,” said Landers, an athletic 6-foot middle hitter. “But over this past summer, I didn’t have a feeling that we’d do it.”
Her reaction when it finally happened was overwhelming.
“I was sobbing after that win,” Landers said. “Going into the fifth set, I was saying, ‘We can do this.’ We’d fought back so hard. What was different this time was that we’d pushed through those mental blocks and bad plays. We’d overcome and played better. That’s what was different for us.”
Those mental breakthroughs, as much as anything, are what Landers believes now has her Grand Meadow team on its best path ever in her three years as a starter.
The timing is great, as the Larks’ hot play has them looking and feeling like true contenders in a Section 1A volleyball tournament that begins for them on Thursday. It’s an event that’s loaded with contenders, including that team that Grand Meadow just beat, Mabel-Canton. The Cougars are one of three teams ranked in the top 10 in Class A. M-C is sixth, Bethlehem Academy seventh and Kenyon-Wanamingo ninth.
But with their new mindset, the Larks now believe they can play with anyone in the section.
Two-thirds into the season, Landers and the team’s other two senior captains — outside hitter Anna Oehlke and setter Emma Grafe — sat down the entire team and had a talk.
This being the seniors’ final crack at volleyball, that trio wanted it made clear that they weren’t going to settle for anything but an all-out effort from everyone.
“We just wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page,” Landers said. “We needed to know that everyone was completely committed and dedicated. We knew the playoffs were coming.”
What’s followed has been Grand Meadow’s best volleyball of the year, highlighted by that five-set win over Lanesboro, and then the five-setter against Mabel-Canton.
Grand Meadow seventh-year coach Sue Wilson hasn’t been surprised by her team's late-season eruption. She’s long known the potential of this group.
“I’ve had a lot of confidence in what our team is capable of doing,” said Wilson, whose Larks take a 16-11 record into the playoffs. “I’ve known that when they play really hard that they can do some awesome things.”
Some of those awesome things happen before the matches ever start. Wilson says they reflect a togetherness that’s unmistakeable with this group and has helped lead to this breakthrough season.
They come into every match singing, chanting and smiling. It’s winning stuff.
“This group meshes together so well,” Wilson said. “I’d told them before that I’d never coached a team that was as close as they are. They love being together, they care about each other and the success of the team.”