CAMBRIDGE -- Nervous? Nope. Excited? Absolutely. That’s how Toria Gillson, a senior at St. Cloud Christian School, described Tuesday night’s historic volleyball match.
Not only was it the varsity season opener for the Warriors, it was the first varsity volleyball competition in school history. And that made it very, very special.
“I don’t really get nervous, I get excited,” Toria said afterwards. “And I was really excited.”
The first varsity match also was the first varsity defeat, but the 3-1 loss to Cambridge Christian at the Armed Forces Reserve Community Center in Cambridge was historic nonetheless. St. Cloud Christian is a tiny school, with K-12 students -- including a high school enrollment of 60-some kids -- learning together in a former St. Cloud elementary building.
“We’ve got a bunch of excited kids who want to be athletes and we try to find places for them,” said athletic director Paul Hastings. In most cases, places for St. Cloud Christian athletes are found through cooperative agreements with St. Cloud’s other, larger high schools: Apollo, Tech and Cathedral.
St. Cloud Christian’s first true “home” team was track and field, with the first varsity squad competing in 2007. Cross-country followed in 2009. The school’s most successful current athlete is McKenzie Holt, who placed fourth in last year’s Class 1A state cross-country meet, then last spring was second in the 3,200 meters and third in the 1,600 at the 1A state track meet. Holt is a junior this year.
The school’s volleyball program, which began in 2005, has been built on a steady diet of junior varsity and C squad competition.
“In the last couple years we felt we’ve been competitive against the JV and C teams we’ve been playing, and other coaches have said, ‘Hey, you’re ready for varsity,’ ” Hastings said.
On Tuesday in Cambridge, St. Cloud Christian had 10 enthusiastic varsity players dressed in purple uniforms, black calf-length socks and black shoes. The first game against Cambridge Christian was tied 20-20 before the home team pulled away for a 25-21 win. Cambridge Christian won the second game 25-23, St. Cloud Christian captured the third game 25-17 and the third game went to Cambridge 25-17.
The Warriors’ first varsity match lasted a little more than 90 minutes and was followed by nothing but smiles.
“I think the nerves kind of got to them a little bit,” said coach Karla Hultgren. “They were really excited about having the opportunity to play a varsity game and being in the game most of the time. I was really happy about that.”
When I asked Karla to compare this year’s team with what she saw when the program began in 2005, she smiled and said, “It’s a night and day difference. We had girls who hardly knew the game of volleyball. And now we have kids who play Junior Olympic volleyball, kids who have come through the ranks, and it’s really become a family. That’s what’s really cool.”
A major piece of becoming a varsity program was joining a conference. The Warriors are a member of the Christian Athletic League, whose other members are spread around the state and beyond. They include Cambridge Christian, Christian Life in Farmington, Faith Christian in Rochester, Mountain Lake Christian, Immanuel Lutheran in Mankato, Good Shepherd Academy in River Falls, Wis., and several schools in the Twin Cities.
The Warriors will play their next five volleyball matches on the road before the next historic step: their first home match. Since their school has a very small gym (“We’d be running into the walls all day,” Gillson said), the Warriors will play their home matches at St. Cloud Cathedral. The first one will be against Hope Christian School of St. Paul on Sept. 24.
“Thank goodness that Cathedral is so gracious to open their school to us,” Hultgren said.
Laura Knoblauch, a St. Cloud Christian senior, would have been overjoyed had the team won Tuesday. But she was happy nonetheless.
“I think we did really well,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud. Honestly, I feel better that we played really, really well in this game. I feel better about that than if we had won and it had been easy. We really stepped up and we did a good job.”
Knoblauch, who has been part of the volleyball program throughout her high school career, talked about the change in the last four years.
“It’s really different. We’ve improved so much. It’s such a blessing. I don’t have any words to describe it. We’ve improved so much and come so far. It’s so cool.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 19
*Miles John has driven: 800
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
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