WADENA – When the Wadena-Deer Creek volleyball team played its first home match of the season last week, it really didn’t feel like a home match. This was understandable, since the Wolverines had only practiced in their new gym twice and had never competed there.
The key word in Wadena is “new.” As in brand new. Shiny new. Spectacularly new.
We all remember June 17, 2010, when an F4 tornado roared through Wadena. It was a miracle that no one was killed, but the devastation was centered on the high school and surrounding area. The school was flattened. Between that day and now, a transformation has occurred, with a new middle/high school now completed and ready for this week … the first week of a new school year and the first week that everybody can finally put the tornado behind them.
“If you go around town, there are not really a lot of signs left that something like that happened,” said volleyball coach Sue Volkmann. “It’s pretty much cleaned up and back to Wadena again. This is kind of the final phase, because everybody’s school is the centerpiece of their community.”
This centerpiece is a model for a modern school: lots of sunlight streaming through large windows, geothermal heating and cooling, 41 high-tech classrooms, terrazzo flooring and lots of other fabulous touches.
A couple hours before the Wolverines opened the volleyball season against Moorhead on Thursday, a workman was installing the number “600” above the school’s main entrance, signifying the address on Colfax Avenue Southwest. Another was attaching a sign outside an office suite that said “Administration.”
For the last two years, school officials, staff and students made do with what they had. High school classes were held at Minnesota State Community and Technical College and Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary School. It was an awkward and crowded situation, where an elementary classroom has been turned into a weight room and wrestling mats, boxes of textbooks and other supplies lined the hallways.
The volleyball team played its home matches in the gym at the elementary school, with fans sitting on folding chairs for part of the season before bleachers were installed.
“We adjusted and everybody was very flexible, we did the best we could and got everything going,” activities director Norm Gallant told me as we stood in the new school. “Fifteen months ago this was a flat, gravel lot and now we’re in the building and it’s been an unbelievable process.
“Our coaches and our kids just did a super job,” said Gallant, who began his job as activites director two days before the tornado struck. “We had what we had and we made the best of it. We had a couple of really good years.”
The new school, paid for mainly by insurance with additional money coming from FEMA, includes a community safe room; it is in essence an auxiliary gymnasium with extremely thick walls designed to withstand winds up to 275 miles per hour.
As fans entered the school for Thursday’s volleyball match, they saw a few minor final touches that had not yet been completed. Handmade signs marked restrooms, concession stand workers were figuring out new equipment, a workman was fine-tuning a drinking fountain, some new chairs for the cafeteria/commons area were still partially wrapped in plastic.
The volleyball team was finally playing in its new gym and using its new locker room. That was no small victory, because in the elementary school the volleyball team had used a choir room as its locker room.
When I asked the team captains about their new locker room, Sydney Schissel said happily, “There’s a bathroom.” Caitlin Volkmann said, “We have lockers and mirrors.” To which Schissel added, “And no piano.”
I can’t speak for the girls locker room, but the gym is spectacular. The floor consists of more than 14,000 two-inch maple strips pieced together, and the floor is surrounded by 1,284 blue bleacher seats, 20 basketball hoops and a running track circling the space above the seats. Banners marking achievements of Wolverines teams and athletes through the years hang from the walls, adding history to the new space.
“The gymnasium turned out better than I ever could have imagined,” Gallant said. “It is absolutely georgeous. Everything is very modern and clean, basically the way we wanted it.”
For the volleyball team – which is ranked sixth in Class 2A and defeated Class 3A Moorhead 3-1 – just having a new home is special.
“It’s awesome. It’s ours, finally,” said Emily Miron. “It doesn’t seem real, almost. Just being here, it’s almost not like a home game yet. But pretty soon we’ll get used to it.”
Schissel called it “unreal. It’s unbelievable, thinking back to everything we went through. It’s crazy to be here now. It’s exciting.”
The Wolverines have played in the last four state volleyball tournaments, winning the 2A championship two years ago. The goal of this year’s team – which lost only two seniors from the 2011 squad – is to make it five consecutive trips to state.
Miron summed up the feelings of everyone at Wadena-Deer Creek when she said, “I think it’s going to be a really great year.”
And that sentiment goes far beyond volleyball.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 23
*Miles John has driven: 1,126
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn