Between the trials of a season limited by the COVID-19 pandemic and a roster trying to replace seven seniors from its 2019 squad that won 21 matches, Kenyon-Wanamingo High School volleyball was certainly looking to put the 2020 season (3-6) in its rearview mirror.
Fast forward to 2021 and the Knights have returned to their usual top form and most recently gained a No. 10 ranking in Class A in the latest Minnesota Volleyball Coaches’ Association poll thanks in part to a 9-2 overall record and a 6-1 record in the always rugged Gopher Conference, which most recently included a 3-1 homecoming win over Medford on Tuesday, Oct. 5 and a sweep Thursday at Maple River.
“It feels good,” senior outside hitter and team captain Julia Dahl said about Kenyon-Wanamingo’s state ranking. "We’ve kind of been the underdogs for awhile, especially last year, and to be ranked that’s kind of a big deal…and to have a record like we have right now that is a real big deal.”
The Knights’ turnaround can be attributed to a strong senior class featuring senior team captains Dahl, middle hitter Stella Rechtzigel and right side Leah Berg. The group of senior leaders is rounded out by defensive specialist Rachel Nesseth and outside hitter Arin Kyllo.
“Last year was a younger varsity team and now our experience is better this year,” Rechtzigel said.
The veteran leadership, a few key newcomers and a determination to return to the top has placed the Knights among the state’s best Class A programs this year in their first season as members of the Gopher Conference.
“This group has played together for a really long time,” second year head coach Tracy Erlandson said. “When I was the assistant coach, I had these girls as well and then last season was just a weird season. The season was short and we didn’t play very many games.
“Over the summer, they were in the gym a lot. We had open gyms twice a week, went to the SMSU (Southwest Minnesota State) team camp and we played (in a) league on Sunday nights. They are just a real hard working, committed team…and they have a goal. Their goal is to get to state.”
A state qualifier in 2016 and 2017, Kenyon-Wanamingo charted 20-plus win seasons and advanced deep into the section playoffs during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
“The big thing now is to try to get a lot of positive talk on the court, and I think that is starting to show. We are starting to gel,” Erlandson said. “Volleyball is all about momentum, and sometimes you have it on your side and sometimes you don’t, and if you don’t you have to figure out how your going to get it back.”
Dahl added, “This year we’ve focused on staying positive and getting into each other’s faces to keep our attitudes up and that has helped a lot.”
A well-rounded team with a starting core of players who can contribute from any position, Erlandson believes her team’s blocking abilities have been a key in 2021.
“Our blocking helps us tremendously get excited and get up," Erlandson said. "Overall, I think we are a well rounded group of players that step on the court.”
In the middle, Rechtzigel has been a force for the Knights, and lets her actions speak for themselves.
“Stella is quiet but her play is loud,” Erlandson said. “When we can get her involved she really brings some good things to the floor.”
Of the team captains, Berg is a more vocal leader from the right side up front.
"When she is on, she is on and I kind of feel bad for the opposing team,” Erlandson said.
Dahl completes the trio of captains as an outside hitter for the Knights.
“She has really improved from her freshman year to now,” Erlandson said of Dahl. “She has switched from setter to outside hitter because that is what we needed on our team this year.”
Nesseth and Kyllo are important reserve players for the Knights and provide vocal support during matches.
“Those two are huge leaders on the bench,” Erlandson said. “They get the girls excited on the bench and they get the girls excited on the floor and that is important. When I am coaching, I can always hear those two talking.”
Another part of Kenyon-Wanamingo’s success has been the emergence of several juniors, sophomores and freshmen on the squad in 2021.
Outside hitter Tessa Erlandson, the daughter of head coach Tracy Erlandson, earned All-Conference honors in the Hiawatha Valley League last season and has been an important cog in the team’s front row this fall.
“She plays all the way around for us,” Tracy Erlandson said. “She brings a lot of energy all over, especially in the back row, Tessa is a very good leader back there and one of our better passers.”
Junior Josi Quam is the team’s top setter and sophomore Rachel Ryan has settled in at the libero position.
“Josi really leads by what she does on the court. She is mentally tough” Tracy Erlandson said. “And Rachel can get to a lot of balls at the libero position. She is getting to be a better player each time she steps on to the court.”
Junior Emma Paulson is listed as another key setter for the Knights, but an injury has allowed freshman Carmen Nerison to gain playing time in the past few games for Kenyon-Wanamingo. Sophomore Norah Rechtzigel, the younger sister of Stella, has also been part of the team’s success this fall.
The ultimate goal for the Knights is to return to state, but Tracy Erlandson is taking the season one step at a time before thinking about attacking a section that includes Class A No. 7 Bethlehem Academy, which beat the Knights in four sets on Sept. 14. Since that loss, the Knights have won five straight games.
“The number one goal is to get back there (the state tournament), however we just take it one game at a time,” Tracy Erlandson said. “Our whole philosophy is one match at a time, and each game that we play we need to get better so that we are peaking at the right time…so that when we do get to playoffs we are gelling.”
Success in the playoffs is part of the winning program at Kenyon-Wanamingo and it is a tradition that this year’s players and coaches want to continue.
“Volleyball is a big sport here and everyone works hard all the time,” Dahl said.
Tracy Erlandson added, “The girls love to play volleyball here. It’s a great atmosphere. Our older girls work with our younger girls. The tradition here is to win and to get better each game.
“We start young and have programs starting in kindergarten through 12th grade. The girls like to play volleyball here and in our school it is something the girls want to play.”
The Knights will wrap up their 2021 regular season with conference matches against New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva on Oct. 12 and at Randolph on Oct. 14, before finishing up with home dates against Waterville-Elysian-Morristown (Oct. 18), Triton (Oct. 19) and Zumbrota-Mazeppa (Oct. 25).
“Our goal is to definitely keep improving,” Berg said. "We have a few tough matches ahead of us, so if we keep pushing through and playing together we can be successful.”