Medford volleyball

Medford’s Morgan Langeslag (12) is one of a number of returning players for the second-ranked Medford volleyball team. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Had Medford been able to seal the deal in the 2018 Class A state volleyball championship, that would have been the Gopher Conference’s fifth title in nine years.

Faribault Bethlehem Academy won in 2011, 2012 and 2014 and Waterville-Elysian-Morristown won it all in 2015.

Nonetheless, the Tigers surprise run to the Xcel Energy Center showed the growing depth in the conference. The traditional powers Bethlehem Academy and W-E-M have to look over their shoulder a bit more than normal.

Medford (No. 2) and W-E-M (No. 5) both appear in the preseason ranked in the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Class A state top 10. BA can quickly enter discussion with a good August.

Here’s a look at how the conference stacks up.

NOTE: Teams are listed in order of 2018 finish. All athletes’ grade levels listed are for 2019 unless noted.

Waterville-Elysian-Morristown

The Buccaneers slayed Goliath in 2018. WEM was a perfect 7-0 in conference play (31-3 overall) to end BA’s title run dating back to 1999. It was the second in school history.

Repeating will prove difficult as Medford returns a lot of talent while WEM graduates 14 players. The Bucs project to have just four this year led by returning contributors senior Delaney Donahue and middle hitter Trista Hering. Donahue led WEM in hitting percentage (.304) and Hering led in blocks (19). Toryn Richards also returns as a hitter who expects to get more touches.

Co-conference player of the year Alexis Morsching departs along with two other seniors on the all-conference team and another honorable mention.

The Buccaneers have a tough schedule and will be challenged in advance of conference play. They’re ranked No. 6 in Class A. Longtime head coach Crystal Lamont returns to the sidelines.

Medford

The Tigers had one of their best conference finishes ever and parlayed it into a second place trophy at state. Medford was 6-1 in the Gopher (29-6 overall) and now gets W-E-M at home in 2019 as it eyes the crown. It’s ranked No. 2 in Class A.

Medford has steadily ascended each of the last three years: 14-13-2/5-2 in 2016, 18-11/5-2 in 2017 and 2018.

The Tigers are equally as tall as they are athletic and have developed a hard-nosed style. It loses three seniors from 2018 but retains senior all-conference first team outside hitter Emma Kniefel. Senior setter Morgan Langeslag was second team and senior libero Kiley Nihart honorable mention.

The program will also be getting a major boost as Owatonna’s top player from last season, Alyvia Johnson, has decided to transfer to the school and will be eligible immediately since she has moved into the district. She was named all-conference honorable mention in the Big Nine last fall and will enter the season as one of the top players in the conference from Day 1.

Missy Underdahl is in the third year of her second stint as head coach. She also led the Tigers in the early 2000s.

Bethlehem Academy

Finishing third place in the conference, beating the defending state champions and advancing to the subsection finals would be a fantastic outcome for most teams. For a powerhouse like BA, it was a dip from the elite levels reached this century.

BA’s conference title run dating back to 1999 was snapped by WEM, which spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the state. The young Cardinals managed a 10-18 record (5-2 gopher), albeit against one of the state’s toughest schedules.

Four seniors graduated, including first team all-conference libero Olivia Nass and second team defensive specialist Chloe Kohl. Senior outside hitter Haley Lang returns as an honorable mention selection.

Sophomore setter Abby Jandro brings in multiple years of experience. Junior middle hitter Kennedy Tutak, sophomore outside hitter Ellie Cohen and senior middle hitter Ellie Cohen should help BA be formidable near the net with good size and athleticism.

Former assistant coach Chris Bothun enters her first year as head coach.

Maple River

The Eagles were a tough out on a given night thanks to their senior leader. Outside hitter Madi Schirmer was co-player of the year in the Gopher. She helped Maple River to a 17-10 overall record and 5-3 mark in conference.

That was the first winning season for the program this decade. Unfortunately for the faithful in Mapleton, the Eagles graduate six players including all three who received conference recongition at outside hitter and defensive specialist.

Head coach Jackie Doering enters her second year as head coach. She was recently an all-conference player at the University of Northwestern in Minnesota.

NRHEG

Against teams above them in the standings, the Panthers lost 15 of 17 sets. Against teams below, they won 9 of 13. NRHEG finished 11-15-1 overall and 3-6 in the Gopher.

It will be a new-look squad in the red and black in 2019 after 10 seniors graduated. That includes first-team outside hitter Olivia Christopherson and honorable mention defensive specialist Sydney Schlinger.

Head coach Onika Peterson returns.

Hayfield

The Vikings went 2-5 in their debut season in the Gopher and 11-18 overall. They had a lot of talent to replace from a 24-6 team in 2017 but should be improved this year.

Junior setter Maryx Young was a second team selection. Honorable mention outside hitter Elecia Brown led four seniors who graduated. Jeremy Struck returns as head coach.

Blooming Prairie

The Awesome Blossoms won three straight games late in 2018, as well as a section playoff game. Those were the main highlights from a young team’s up-and-down 2018.

BP finished 11-15 and 2-6 in the Gopher. It did so with just one senior at middle hitter. The Awesome Blossoms will hope to climb the standings led by senior second team outside hitter Julia Worke and senior honorable mention setter Heather Pirkl.

Ranell Kittleson returns as head coach.

United South Central

The Rebels did not win a set in conference play in 2018. They finished 5-22-1 overall and did tie 1-1 with NRHEG in a tournament that did not count toward the conference standings.

USC graduated five seniors including second team outside hitter Lizzy Baird and honorable mention setter Kortney Harpstad. The Rebels return depth at libero and in the middle that they hope can be enough to help secure their first conference win since 2015.

Joe Kuechenmeister returns as head coach.

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