A WINNING TRADITION: High expectations pay off for Mayer Lutheran with third-straight state tournament appearance

MAYER – The Mayer Lutheran volleyball team has had a new look to it in 2023. That doesn’t mean expectations aren’t the same. With just four players on this year’s roster with state tournament experience from a year ago, that hasn’t stopped coach Joelle Grimsley from prepping her team for another state tournament run on the team’s first practice of the season.

“I’m always a believer that we’re doing this for the sole purpose of winning a state title,” she said. “It’s a journey on the way and it’s bumpy at times but our end goal is to always be playing at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. We talked about that on day one. I told them at our section final that we’ve been together for 80 days and to look at what they have all done. On day one we said our goal was to get to the state tournament and then you want to go 3-0. I wouldn’t coach if that wasn’t our goal.”

Grimsley will be the first to admit that things haven’t gone perfectly so far this season but yet the Crusaders are back at the state tournament for the third year in a row.

“Never,” Grimsley said when asked if it ever gets old going to state. “When you don’t go, it’s the worst feeling of all. It’s so busy this week but it’s a fun busy. You’re stressed and nervous all week but when you’re not doing this, you’re wishing you were. I still always get so excited about it.”

One of those key returning players for the Crusaders is senior Danica Martin. A 5-foot-11 middle hitter, Martin brings not only talent but also leadership to Mayer Lutheran as she’ll be at the state tournament for the third time in her high school career.

“I’m so excited,” Martin said. “Going back to state is an experience I’ll never forget, especially being able to bring these underclassmen along as well. It’ll be fun.”

It’s also a special moment for Martin knowing she’ll get one last state tournament experience with her sister Marley who is another key returning player for the Crusaders.

“It means a lot to me,” Danica Martin said. “I’ve been to state for the last three years. In my first few years, I was cheering on the bench some and in the last few years I’ve been really playing. Being able to play once more with my sister on the court is something special. Just having that time on the court together is something special.”

With the Martin sisters leading the charge for Mayer Lutheran on the state’s biggest stage, the duo will also be looking for their new faces to step into their roles as well.

“A lot of the freshmen were at the games last year in the stands,” Grimsley said. “Now it’s a bit different for them that they will be on the court. There’s going to be a lot of girls with first-game jitters for sure but hopefully, we’ll find our rhythm quickly. I have a lot of new people on that court. I have four returning but they were not lead players last year. They’ve grown into that role as the season has gone and have hit their stride these past few weeks.”

Mayer Lutheran cruised through the Section 2A Tournament without dropping a set. They come in as the No. 2 seed and battle-tested as they played a loaded schedule once again to prepare them for the postseason.

“It’s hard at the beginning for these girls to go up against some of the teams we’ve played,” Grimsley said. “It’s shellshocking for the youngsters at times. The older kids know what we do. I’m just so grateful that the bigger schools continue to play us and we can still compete with them. I always stress how important it is to keep those games on our schedule to prepare us. A lot of the great Class A schools are doing that now.”

While there have been bumps along the way, the Crusaders are right where they want to be. Mayer Lutheran lost six matches this season, three of which to teams in this year’s Class A and Class AA state tournament.

“It was really hard and took a lot longer this year than most years to get that chemistry and get things going,” Grimsley said. “They all had to learn their roles. There’s a lot of upperclassmen not playing much right now and that’s tough but they’ve done a great job of building each other up and knowing what they do.”

“Our team chemistry has only gotten better,” sophomore setter Izzy Keaveny added.

Mayer Lutheran opens the Class A state tournament taking on unseeded Ely in the state quarterfinals. The Wolves are 26-5 on the season and looking for revenge after losing to the Crusaders 3-1 in the state quarterfinals last season.

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