DELANO – Age is just a number when it comes to the Delano volleyball team. They proved that this season.
With a unique group of players from different ages, the Tigers took last year’s disappointment and turned that into motivation this season and it resulted in their first section championship in a decade.
“I think with how close we got last year was a huge motivational factor to them working hard in the offseason and all season long,” Delano coach Becca Rue said. “They come to each practice and really want to get better.”
The Tigers felt the disappointment a season ago coming so close to breaking through. A 3-2 loss to rival Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the section championship fueled the fire from the start of this season.
“It definitely put a fire into this bunch,” Rue said. “They wanted to get there again and they didn’t want it to end like it did last year.”
“Losing last year was heartbreaking for us especially with it being in five and against Benilde-St. Margaret’s,” sophomore Kaelyn Wittwer said. “Making it to the section finals last year was super cool but to get back there again and finally win it was super cool.”
Breaking through this season was no easy task for the Tigers. Competing in one of the toughest sections in the state regardless of class, Delano had to navigate its way through a section with four of the top 10 ranked teams in their way. The Tigers swept their first two matches including a win over No. 6 Holy Angels. In the section championship, Delano rallied from an 0-2 hole to stun No. 3-ranked Northfield to claim the section title.
“Honestly, I still can’t believe that it happened,” senior Grace Danielson said. “Last year it was a heartbreaker but we made it that far. This year we used that to feed our hunger that we wanted to make it there. We knew going into the season we were going to be a good team but we had no idea how good we could be. We wanted to come back from last year and as the season went on we realized that this is a special group that can go a long way.”
“I think it looks really cool to have to go through our section like we did,” Wittwer added. “It really helps us to see that good competition before state. The amount of good teams we have in that section makes everyone work so hard and wants it so bad so it’s just really rewarding to be able to make it out of there.”
One quick look at the roster for the Tigers and you’ll notice a big age gap between players. With just five seniors on the rosters, Delano has had their underclassmen, a majority of them sophomores, step up in big ways all season long in key spots.
“Once you get to varsity, you have to forget about your grade,” Rue said. “You’re here because you deserve to be here. The seniors have done awesome work for the sophomores. The sophomores really want to make the seniors proud. They both know that they need each other.”
“We all get along so well,” Wittwer said. “It doesn’t even feel like there is a two-year age gap. We’re all really good friends and the dynamic between us is really good.”
The chemistry on the team is no secret that has been the key to their success this season. With a group that plays for each other, the sky has been the limit this season as they are poised for one of the best seasons in program history.
“We’re a close-knit family,” Danielson said. “No one really looks at each other and sees a different age. There’s always a sophomore and a senior talking to each other. Everyone is just so connected.”
“We all had a goal at the start of the season to go to state,” Wittwer added. “Now that we actually did it, it’s kind of surreal but we all wanted it so badly and believed in ourselves so much that it’s not surprising.”
While chemistry certainly has been a big part of the success of the Tigers this season, so is their skill. Delano features athletes who can make plays all over the floor making it tough for opponents to figure them out.
“We’re such a well-balanced attack that other teams don’t necessarily know who to key in on from set to set,” Rue said. “They are unselfish and huge supporters of each other which is why they are being so successful.”
Delano comes into the Class AAA state tournament battle-tested. The Tigers knocked off two ranked teams just to get to the state and are now looking to make some noise on the state’s biggest stage.
“It makes it that much more enjoyable,” Rue said about being a state title contender. “We knew with how tough our section was that whoever comes out of it deserves to be there. It’s going to be more than just getting there now. We have the goal and got a good shot of making that state championship match and hopefully surprise some people.”
“With it being my last season, it’s just nice to keep playing and not be done,” Tool added. “I don’t think it’s really hit me that we’re actually going to play at state but I’m excited for it. We all definitely think we have a shot. It makes it really exciting. We know we have a good chance if we play our game.”
Delano has lost just two matches this season coming into the state tournament and they’ve come against the top two seeds in Class AAAA in Wayzata and New Prague. After coming out on top in Section 6AAA, the Tigers are excited to see what they can do on the state’s biggest stage and make some more memories together.
“Obviously I wanted to make it last year but going into my senior year I couldn’t have asked for a better team or situation to close out my career,” Danielson said. “When you’re playing in sections you never know when your last practice is. Now that we are in state we know today is our last practice and these are our last games. It’s our last chance to make memories together.”
“With this group, when they’re relaxed and having fun, they play even better,” Rue added. “We just want to stay loose and enjoy every moment that we can and hopefully play some really good volleyball.”
Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter/X all week long for in-game updates and coverage on the Delano volleyball team at the Class AAA state tournament.