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500th career victory for Mabel-Canton volleyball coach

Fri, Sep 27th, 2013
Posted in Canton Sports

On September 3 2013, the Mabel-Canton Cougar volleyball team took the court and played SEC foe Houston. The Cougars dispatched with the ‘Canes 3-0 in work-woman-like fashion. But the night was bigger than just competition. With the win, Cougar head coach Lonnie Morken, the maestro of M-C volleyball over the past 20 years, recorded his 500th career victory. He became the 15th volleyball coach in Minnesota history to achieve the milestone. It was an accomplishment for Coach Morken, his family, the Mabel-Canton volleyball program, all the girls who have played in it, and the towns and families that have supported it over the years. And all of that, started so innocently.

In 1993, fresh out of college , 22 year-old got offered a junior varsity volleyball coaching position at Spring Grove High School. Morken had played a little volleyball at Luther College, and line-judged the woman’s matches. At the time he was a substitute teacher at Spring Grove. Figuring coaching would be ‘a great experience’ he took the position. The following summer, the Spring Grove athletic director told him the position wouldn’t be open (the previous coach was coming back from maternity leave), and so he was no longer needed. Then the Mabel-Canton volleyball head coach position opened up. And so Morken said, “You know what, I’ll throw my name in the hat.” Morken’s plan was to substitute teach for one more year, and (thus) coach volleyball for one year. After that, he was going to ‘branch out’, or move and find a full-time teaching position.

“It [coaching volleyball] was going to be a one year deal,” he adamantly declared.

He went to the interview with Mabel-Canton Principal Lowell Hareldson.

“Well, you know, you’re hired,” Hareldson said, “you’re the only applicant, but you’re hired! You’ll most likely be asked back unless you hit a girl, or lose to North Winneshiek!”

Evidently, neither happened.

Morken didn’t inherit a great program, or a program at all. Mabel-Canton volleyball had gone winless (0-20 if Morken remember’s correctly) the year before he arrived. But one more thing had to happen to ensure what would transpire over the next 20 or so years. About a week after school began, an aide in the elementary title position died. So Hareldson called Lonnie and offered him a paraprofessional job. It was a foot in the door to the full-time teaching position Morken was seeking. A Spring Grove High School graduate with ties to Mabel, it was natural he stuck his foot forward.

As for the volleyball coaching side, Morken began reading up. He called his new ‘peers’, Caledonia’s Scott Koepke (a fellow Luther alum), Stewartville’s John Dzubay (the mastermind of the Tigers vaunted program), Tracy-Milroy’s Terry Culhane (now the head coach at Southwest State in Marshall, Minn.), and Apple Valley’s Walt Weaver.

“I knew I didn’t know a lot. And I wanted to contact the people who knew a lot, and I wanted to learn how to be good at it. I would never have the program that we have now, if I hadn’t gotten help from (those four). We’d still be floundering at .500.”

It took a little while just to get to that level. Morken remembers his first win in 1994. It was the first game of the year against Fillmore Central, coached by now M-C assistant Susie (Jarland) Monroe.

“I remember running down into the locker room after that game and the girls were so excited, because most of them had played the previous year and won nothing. It was our first game of the year and we’re like, ‘hey, we won this is easy!’ And then reality set in.”

Morken doesn’t remember his first loss.

“It probably was the second game though, cause we only won six (the first year)!”

That first year at Mabel, Morken also got a little inspiration from a few very young athletes.

As a paraprofessional, one of his duties was to go outside at recess. There, he observed 5th grade girls ‘peppering’ (passing a volleyball around) in the winter. Since they’d had no background in volleyball, no coaching up until that point, Morken thought, ‘Oh-my-gosh, these girls must have a little bit of a love for the game, cause, that’s not normal, especially elementary girls. In the winter, they’re going to be huddled together cause they hate doing anything at recess!’

Morken’s second year, he started taking those girls to off-season junior olmypic (JO) volleyball tournaments. It was essentially the beginning of the Mabel-Canton volleyball ‘program.’ The group of girls included Molly Horihan, Jenny Aasum, Holly Pierce, Andrea Dahl, and Shelby Bigalk. They came of varsity age about the time M-C won its first SEC title. They came of varsity age about the time M-C started competing for Sub-Section and Section titles.

The Cougars won seven games Morken’s second year. And then they won 12. And then they won 17 his fourth year. And that was when Morken really thought his teams started to compete a little bit.

“We would get beat by the stronger teams 15-10, 15-12, 15-11. So you could tell (they were close).”

In 1998, they won the SEC for the first time, and posted a memorable win over Chatfield in the Sub-Section semifinals (enroot to the Sub-Section title). The Gophers were a 3-Rivers school and given the #2 seed resultantly. M-C was from the SEC and the #3 seed, and the Cougars won. That squad consisted of five freshman (the ‘peppering’ girls), a sophomore, and two seniors, one of which was Bethany (Wilder) Moen. She is, and has been, Morken’s long-time varsity assistant coach.

“It was the best match a team [he’s coached] from Mabel-Canton has ever played. Sometimes as a coach, you just sit back and think ‘this is neat!’”

In 1999, they knocked on the door of state. They faced off with Lanesboro, a squad they’d beaten a trio of times in the regular season. In Morken’s most devastating loss, they fell 3-2 in the match that began around 7:30 in Rochester, Minn. and didn’t get done until well past 10. The Cougars were at match point twice, but couldn’t nail it down. Lanesboro would win the Section title over Faribault B.A. and head to state, a missed opportunity of sorts for Cougar volleyball. But the following two years, the Cougars advanced to state, taking 5th (consolation champs) and then 3rd, going 2-1 each time. Little did Morken know, 2000 and 2001 would be his only trips to the big dance.

“I certainly didn’t take it for granted, but we went to state my 7th and 8th year as a coach. I knew we had good kids coming up. And so, casually I would think, ‘this is great. I want to keep going. We can do this more. We got great teams. We got great kids.’ And it hasn’t happened since. We lost seven times in the section championship. It is what it is.”

They won the SEC title every year since though. They have (by far) the most established program in that conference. And Morken can’t do much about the fact that Faribault B.A., the state’s most established small school volleyball program, is in the same section. Their recent history of winning is unparalleled (10 of the last 11 Section 1A titles, six state titles since 2002). It’s like competing against Goliath. And M-C is definitely the little guy in the fight, both regarding the size of its players (rarely over 6’0”), and the talent pool they draw from. The Cougars are most certainly a small, small school (the football team is 9-man, whereas teams like B.A. and W-K are Class A). Yet, the program has turned out countless talented, All-State volleyball players; Aasum, Molly and Kate Horihan, Britney Pierce, Tori Lind, and Belle Sand. It’s also the hub of the volleyball world in the summer. Great players from other schools, the Maria Fruechte’s, Emma Lange’s, Alex Duxbury’s, Kenzie Lind’s, Alex Peterson’s, and Jillian Krier’s of southeastern Minnesota volleyball (college or college-bound players), descend upon Mabel to train with the Cougars in the off-season. And though M-C generally parades through the SEC regular season unscathed, when the Cougars play tough competition, they still hold their own or more.

“We won the Apple Valley classic one year, and two other years we took second. One year we beat Stewartville and Robbinsdale Armstrong, the defending AA and AAA state champions. And then, one year, we beat B.A. and Apple Valley, back-to-back matches. And to this day, what the girls talk about are some of the losses at those tournaments (in a favorable light). We go through our hitting lines and we have three girls who can thump the ball and (the opponent has) 12. They’re probably snickering at us, and all the sudden we just beat Blaine. That’s so cool. That’s so cool.”

Morken doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon, even though he’s twice been contacted about coaching his alma mater Luther College. Both times he wasn’t offered the job, but the second time he would’ve ‘thought long and hard’ about it had he been (cause of the positives for his family). Lonnie, his wife Stephanie, and three daughters Sadie (11), Sophie (8), and Sahara (6) live in Mabel. He plans on being around long enough to coach them through, and then behind that too.

“Some former players are living in Mabel, and they have girls. I might stick around until then!”

When it all began, Morken was about training the girls to play the game right, to have sound volleyball skills (passing, defense, serving, etc). After a few years, he wanted to win, to validate to his girls what he was teaching. That happened. Now he is back to training the girls to play the game right. He’s come full circle.

“I would rather lose to Apple Valley at a big-time tournament in three, and play great, then to beat a conference team (while) playing crappy,” Morken stated.

“It [500 wins] is a step on the path, but it is a big deal. A coach is only as good as their athletes. We have had some unbelievably dedicated girls to get to this point. And I think about where we started, with our program, and to be able to succeed, year-after-year-after-year, at a small school, it’s a challenge. So many times you’ll get a small school that is good for two or three years, maybe four, cause they ride a wave of athletes through. But for whatever reason, they’re not able to teach skill. For whatever reason, it’s a challenge (to recurrently win). So to be able to get 500 wins in 20 years is a total testament to the kids. It’s special. It’s neat.”

But he still has the ultimate goal in the back of his mind.

“I would really like to go back (to state) just one more time. Not that it would validate me, because I don’t need that. I would like to enjoy it one more time.”

Maybe 2013 is the season. Morken has five highly experienced seniors, a cast headed by fifth year players Belle Sand, Lydia Geving, and Carly McCabe. If experience alone got them a bid, they’d be a shoe-in. But, experience doesn’t get them in. And the section, though a bit weaker with Wabasha-Kellogg down, is still tougher than nails. First, in the Sub-Sections, is newly anointed #1 in Class A, Fillmore Central, the champions of the vaunted Class A Showcase. Then, after that, Faribault B.A. probably awaits.

But even if M-C can’t run the gauntlet, Morken’s program will move forward. The Sand’s, Geving’s, and McCabe’s will be replaced by the (Sara) Vettleson-Trutza’s, (Coranda) Vickerman’s, (Savannah) Slafter’s, and (Lexi) Thorson’s. Another crop of M-C volleyball playing machines will take center court and leave their mark. And maybe in another 20 years, Morken will be on the brink of 1,000 wins.

“Oh God!” he replied. “That’s ridiculous…because it’s so far away.”

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