By PATRICK SLACK
When Leah Merten first heard about a job opening at Upsala, she knew two things about the school.
It was small.
And it was talented.
In her first season as head coach, taking the place of Ken Solarz after he retired with a career record of 464 wins, 10 conference championships and a trip to the state tournament, Merten had big shoes to fill.
While Merten was spending the past two years as the head coach at St. Cloud Apollo, Upsala attained back-to-back Prairie Conference championships, led by back-to-back conference Most Valuable Player Aimee Pelzer.
Luckily for Merten and the Cardinals, the class that served as the backbone of the success of Solarz’ final title-winning teams was entering its senior year, with Pelzer and All-Area teammates Tracy Herzog and Makenna Peterson leading the way.
A new beginning
After accepting a teaching position at the high school and assuming the head volleyball coach title at the start of summer, when August rolled around, it was finally time for Merten to see the faces that accompanied the names and awards.
“Coming in my first year and seeing the talent these girls have, I knew it was going to be a good season,” Merten said. “I was very excited to get into the season and see where it took us.”
“Knowing how successful these girls were, I had met with Ken Solarz before the season and he gave me the rundown on the girls so I had an idea of what he had done and what the girls were used to,” she said. “I brought my own coaching style to the court and the girls responded very well.”
“A lot of changes were made in how fundamental skills were taught and the first week of practice was a little frustrating for some of the girls as they adjusted to the way I coach,” she said. “But the end result was success.”
That success started early and often as the regular season got under way, with Upsala sweeping through its first five foes, then topping Prairie Conference rival Osakis in four sets.
The Cardinals then took part in the Burnsville Class A Showcase, a field of 16 of the top small school programs in the state.
Upsala split its six matches, defeating Lake of the Woods twice and MACCRAY while falling against ranked foes Win-E-Mac, Mayer Lutheran and Canby.
“It was fun to play that caliber of competition and to see how we stood up against them,” Pelzer said. “We knew after we had played those teams that we were a force to reckon with.”
Squaring off against the best the state had to offer, Pelzer recorded her 1,000th career kill.
In the process, she also broke the previous school records for kills and set assists, demonstrating her diverse abilities to manufacture offense.
“Aimee is the smartest decision maker on the court that I have coached,” Merten said. “She knew when she needed to hit the ball and put it away and when to tip the ball. She read the other team’s defense very well and knew exactly where she needed to put the ball to get a kill.”
“She is a very controlled player and is mentally tough,” Merten said. “When she made mistakes, she knew exactly what she did wrong and what she needed to do to fix it for the next time.”
Unbeaten in Prairie play
Upsala followed the Burnsville Showcase by proceeding to outlast fellow conference power Long Prairie-Grey Eagle in five sets, the final time the Cardinals would be seriously threatened on their way to an undefeated regular season in Prairie competition.
“That was one of our goals,” Pelzer said. “It was our last year and we wanted to do the best we could and leave our career being the top team.”
Upsala opened the postseason by sweeping Eden Valley-Watkins for the second year in a row, setting up a rematch from 12 days prior against Sebeka in the section quarterfinals.
The Cardinals cruised past Sebeka at the Upsala tournament 25-13, 25-15, but didn’t expect to have as easy a time of things the second time around.
“I knew that game was going to be very close,” Pelzer said. “When tournament time comes around it’s a new season and you must be at your best at all times.”
Upsala started off in fine form, taking the first set 25-19, but Sebeka evened the match in the second.
The two teams traded the next two sets as well, forcing a fifth and decisive set.
Upsala took an early edge, only for Sebeka to storm out to an 11-7 lead and move within four points of winning the match.
Coming out of a time out, though, the momentum shifted quickly and radically.
“The exact word I thought was ‘believe,’” Pelzer said. “When Coach Merten took the time out when we were down, I told the girls, ‘We just have to believe and good things will happen.’”
“I’m just glad the outcome was the way it ended up,” she said.
Upsala strung together a seven-point rally to go ahead 14-11, then held off Sebeka to take the set 15-13, and with it the match.
“I was so ecstatic and my teammates as well,” Pelzer said. “After losing to Sebeka in basketball so many times to advance in the playoffs, it felt so great to beat them.”
“I would tell our setter to give the ball to Aimee when we needed a kill or to score a point,” Merten said. “The team could always count on her to pick them up and make a big play when we needed it.”
“It helps immensely to have a leader on the court that shows a passion for the game and the drive to want to win,” she said. “Aimee is a great example of what it takes to be a successful athlete. A lot of the younger girls really look up to her and the elementary girls want to play and be just like her.”
Thorn in the side
Following the win over Sebeka, Upsala advanced to take on Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (BBE) for the fourth consecutive year in the section semifinals.
After a quick sweep the season before, the Cardinals held late leads in the second and third sets, but couldn’t put BBE away as its season came to an end with a 26-7 record.
“They are a great defensive team,” Pelzer said. “I would say being mentally ready for the game helped close the gap. Coach kept retelling us over and over ‘You guys can do it,’ so I think that motivation helped us out.”
Another challenge awaits
With the departure of this year’s seniors, the Upsala volleyball program will be presented with a new set of challenges waiting for them next fall.
“Having the seniors graduate this year is huge loss for our program,” Merten said. “They will be missed but have shown the younger girls what it takes to be successful. I really have enjoyed this team this year. They are a fun group of girls and we are really going to miss them next year.”
“Getting 1,000 kills was pretty memorable and advancing to the semis in the sections, the farthest we have ever made it during my career,” Pelzer said. “Also, just hanging out with Coach and the team, we had so many laughing moments together that will be memories that will last for a lifetime.”
“It has been an amazing time playing with all the seniors on the team,” she said. “We also had fun and were set out to win every game.”
“The returning players have some big roles to fill with all the talent of the senior class that we are losing,” Merten said. “The girls are going to have to work hard in the summer to improve their skills to keep the tradition alive. Every school in our conference is improving and we need to keep working hard to do the same.”
Now, Pelzer and the rest of this year’s senior class is motivated to cross off the last milestone remaining in front of them in the winter basketball season: a trip of their own to state.
“We’re very motivated,” Pelzer said. “We just have one more goal to accomplish and hopefully that will happen for our team this year.”
MC Record’s Player of the Year, match-by-match
Onamia: 6 kills, 8 set assists, 7 digs, 3 blocks
Holdingford: 13 kills, 10 assists, 7 digs, 4 blocks
Browerville: 4 kills, 6 assists, 7 digs, 5 blocks
Swanville: 9 kills, 11 assists, 11 digs, 2 blk, 3 aces
Eagle Valley: 14 kills, 18 assists, 8 digs, 1 ace
Osakis: 18 kills, 26 assists, 11 digs, 2 blocks
Mayer Luth: 6 kills, 3 assists, 8 digs, 1 blk, 4 aces
Win-E-Mac: 6 kills, 8 assists, 11 digs, 4 blocks
Lake of the Woods: 7 kills, 6 assists, 8 digs, 3 blk
Lake of the Woods: 7 kills, 5 assists, 5 digs, 2 blk
Canby: 8 kills, 5 assists, 10 digs, 1 block, 1 ace
MACCRAY: 10 kills, 5 assists, 5 digs, 3 blk, 1 ace
LPGE: 16 kills, 14 assists, 12 digs, 6 blocks, 1 ace
Royalton: 9 kills, 10 assists, 4 digs, 5 blocks
Morris Area/C-A: 13 kills, 4 assists, 9 digs
Ortonville: 8 kills, 5 assists, 7 digs
Carlton: 18 kills, 13 assists, 14 digs, 2 blocks
West Central: 10 kills, 7 asts, 8 digs, 2 blk, 1 ace
Morris/C-A: 14 kills, 12 assists, 12 digs, 4 aces
West Ctrl: 7 kills, 9 assists, 17 digs, 2 blocks
Browerville: 12 kills, 18 assists, 14 digs, 1 block
Kimball Area: 18 kills, 18 assists, 11 digs, 3 blk
Swanville: 20 kills, 13 asts, 25 digs, 8 blk, 2 aces
Eagle Valley: 5 kills, 17 assists, 4 digs, 5 aces
Royalton: 10 kills, 7 assists, 9 digs, 3 aces
Sebeka: 18 kills, 9 assists, 12 digs, 1 block, 1 ace
Milaca: 12 kills, 6 assists, 4 digs, 2 aces, 1 block
Swanville: 6 kills, 7 assists, 9 digs, 1 block, 1 ace
Henning: 11 kills, 8 assists, 12 digs, 2 blocks
Osakis: 21 kills, 22 assists, 13 digs, 5 blk, 1 ace
Section 5A tournament
EV-Watkins: 10 kills, 11 asts, 16 digs, 4 blk, 1 ace
Sebeka: 26 kills, 19 assists, 33 digs, 2 blocks
Belgrade-B-E: 6 kills, 13 assists, 22 digs
Set Assists: 353
Solo Blocks: 11
Block Assists: 64
Service Aces: 32