The confidence was high even before the season started for the Cannon Falls volleyball team. It didn’t matter to the Bombers that they finished just 6-6 a year ago. This year, things just felt in place.

The Bombers were right. Cannon Falls is as good as any team in the loaded Hiawatha Valley League this season, has a 3-0 win over powerful Kasson-Mantorville, has arguably the top player in the HVL (setter Jaci Winchell), and is as deep and cohesive as it’s ever been under longtime coach Melissa Huseth.

All of that good stuff has allowed Cannon Falls to have already tied the school record for wins in a season with 21 (just five losses) and be ranked third in the state in Class AA.

“I was just thinking tonight (Wednesday) about how this season has gone, and wow, we just have a lot of strength in numbers,” Huseth said. “Our program is just pretty solid right now. When we practice, they are good, quality practices because of that depth. The kids push each other. And our substitutes are good and just really selfless.”

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Kasson-Mantorville hands Stewartville first loss in five-set thriller

If there was a turning point this season, when Cannon Falls truly knew that it had a special group, it came one week ago. That’s when the Bombers traveled to take on No. 4-ranked Kasson-Mantorville (Class AAA) and came away with a head-turning 25-21, 25-17, 25-22 win.

Winchell, the team’s star setter, did what she’s done all season. She came up with huge numbers: 7 kills, 32 assists, 14 digs, 2 blocks and 2 aces. There was also Madison Burr with 11 kills and six blocks, Bree Robinson with 20 digs, Halle Hustad with nine kills, and Lauren Johnson with 7 kills, 10 digs and 4 blocks.

After Winchell, hitters Hustad and Burr jump out most. Both are 6-foot-1 and can put great swings on the ball.

Winchell leads the team with an astronomical 662 assists. Burr has 242 kills and Hustad 196.

But it is Cannon Falls being a true “team” that Huseth says has put these Bombers over the top.

It’s what allowed them to have that resounding win over the KoMets, who just a few days later beat No. 2-ranked Stewartville (Class AAA). Cannon Falls’ win raised its confidence to new heights.

“We hadn’t beaten Kasson-Mantorville in a long time,” Huseth said. “Our girls were really excited that we went out there and played them point for point. It really raised their confidence that they can do it, that they can go out and play big teams and not just compete, but win.”

Roadblocks for Stewartville

Stewartville was sailing along, ranked No. 2 in the state and unbeaten at 16-0.

Then came two happenings. Kasson-Mantorville was one of them, the KoMets annually not only one of the best teams in the Hiawatha Valley League but the state. The KoMets used five sets on Tuesday to end a Stewartville 34-match win streak that dated back to 2019, when it won the state championship.

Kasson-Mantorville's Annika Larson goes for a kill during Tuesday night's game at Stewartville. Alex VandenHouten / Post Bulletin
Kasson-Mantorville's Annika Larson goes for a kill during Tuesday night's game at Stewartville. Alex VandenHouten / Post Bulletin

The KoMets were just part of a sudden bump in Stewartville’s road. One day before the K-M match, it was revealed that Tigers starting middle hitter Arianna Blohm would be out the rest of the season with a stress fracture in her back.

“That really does change everything for us,” Stewartville coach John Dzubay said of being without the 6-foot, high-leaping Blohm, who has committed to play next year at Division I North Dakota State. “We’d been able to protect our shorter setter (standout Hilary Minnich) with Arianna. But now, we don’t have another 6-foot blocker like her.”

Blohm’s injury isn’t the only one that Stewartville is now dealing with. Against K-M, the Tigers’ libero, Kylie Smidt, suffered a concussion. That’s in addition to the knee problems she’s been battling all season. Smidt may be out all of this weekend with the concussion as Stewartville travels to play in the difficult Lakeville North Tournament.

Century’s big injury

Century coach Nichelle Guillaume can relate to what Dzubay is going through. Guillaume also lost one of her top players, outside hitter Brooke Meincke, midway through the Panthers’ match with Mayo on Oct. 5

Meincke suffered a fractured bone in the lower portion of her left leg and is out for the season.

It was a big loss for the Panthers. Meincke is not a tall hitter, at just 5-7, but the junior is an explosive jumper who also has varsity experience.

Century's Brooke Meincke (12) bumps the ball during a volleyball match against Kasson-Mantorville Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Kasson. Meincke was recently lost for the season with a leg injury. Post Bulletin file photo / Joe Ahlquist
Century's Brooke Meincke (12) bumps the ball during a volleyball match against Kasson-Mantorville Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Kasson. Meincke was recently lost for the season with a leg injury. Post Bulletin file photo / Joe Ahlquist

“That hurt us quite a bit,” Guillaume said. “The last few games, we’ve not played our best as we’re trying to find new rotations. But I think we are starting to figure it out.

“But I really feel bad for (Meincke). She’s helped carry our team.”

Century is 17-5 overall.

The power of the HVL

The Hiawatha Valley League has a rich tradition in volleyball. Two of its schools have annually been among the state’s best, Stewartville and Kasson-Mantorville.

Now, make it four teams that are true powers this year, with two more on the fringe of that designation.

Byron’s Clara Hoegh (3) sets the ball during a girls volleyball game against Zumbrota-Mazeppa Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at Byron High School in Byron.  The Bears are one of the elite teams this season in the Hiawatha Valley League. Post Bulletin file photo / Traci Westcott
Byron’s Clara Hoegh (3) sets the ball during a girls volleyball game against Zumbrota-Mazeppa Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at Byron High School in Byron. The Bears are one of the elite teams this season in the Hiawatha Valley League. Post Bulletin file photo / Traci Westcott

Stewartville is ranked No. 2 in Class AAA, Kasson-Mantorville fourth (those two are likely to trade places after K-M beat the Tigers 3-2 on Tuesday) and fellow HVL team Byron sixth. Cannon Falls is a Cass AA team and might just be the best of the HVL bunch. It’s ranked third and recently beat K-M 3-0.

The two on the fringe of “great” are Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Lake City. The Cougars are 17-4 and managed to beat Cannon Falls 3-2 early this season. Lake City is 15-8 and forced Cannon Falls into five games before bowing in early September.

Stewartville longtime coach John Dzubay says he’s never seen the HVL like this.

“I don’t remember it ever being this tough,” he said. “There are just so many teams that are so good. But it’s fun because you love to play competitive matches. The players like it like that and the fans like it this way. It really makes for good volleyball. There are just so many good coaches right now throughout our entire league.”