WADENA – The tornado that tore through this Minnesota community in June ripped Wadena-Deer Creek High School to shreds, sent the roof of the nearby ice arena sailing through town, destroyed homes and trees and knocked down hundreds of cemetery headstones.
But it was a miracle. Actually, it was more than just a miracle.
“It was a huge miracle that nobody was killed,” said high school senior Courtney Volkmann. Those words came from someone whose family home and farm were wiped out by the storm. And they are evidence that people in Wadena are very thankful and grateful for what they have, even in the wake of the F4 tornado that struck on June 17.
There were plenty of smiles and laughter in the school hallways when I visited Wadena on Monday. Of course, the school hallways aren’t the same hallways that were wrecked in June. The high school is now off limits to all but demolition workers, who will take down what’s left of the building before reconstruction takes place and a new school opens – if all goes as planned -- in 2012.
High school classes are being held at the nearby Minnesota State Community and Technical College, as well as across the street at Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary School. It’s 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 line the hallways.
Lots of people from Wadena-Deer Creek will travel to St. Paul this week for the state volleyball tournament. And if there ever was a team that was easy to root for, it’s the Wadena-Deer Creek Wolverines. They are undefeated, they are ranked second in Class 2A and seeded second in the state tourney, and they have been a rallying point for their entire community. If you look at the state tournament program, the Wolverines’ team photo was taken as they posed outside the main entrance of their wrecked school. (This is that photo.)
“The volleyball team has galvanized us,” said athletic director Norm Gallant. “It’s been great for our town. We needed something to cheer for, that’s for sure.”
Of course, not having a high school gym was an issue. The team played its home matches in the gym at the elementary school, with fans sitting on folding chairs for part of the season until bleachers could be installed. But as has been the story time and again since June 17, everybody pitched in and made it work; school custodians set up the chairs and the fans took them down.
“It was kind of a rallying point … something good is happening and it’s something to cheer for,” said volleyball coach Sue Volkmann, who also is Courtney’s mother. “Our town got really close and we just learned to work together.”
The Volkmanns have dealt with some of the worst effects of the storm. Their home and their farm – eight or nine buildings, three silos, garages, a shop – were destroyed, as were some livestock.
“It pretty much took everything,” said Sue (pictured below with the team during Monday's practice).
The Volkmann family and the volleyball team were at a summer tournament in Bemidji when the tornado hit. Sue’s husband, Tim, received a call that the storm had struck their farm as well as parts of town. The team stopped playing in the middle of a match and prepared to leave. But tornado warnings were then issued for Bemidji, so everyone in the gym took shelter in locker rooms … where there was no cell phone service.
“They had just found out that their whole farm was gone, and we had to sit in the locker room and wait,” said senior Kelsi Crawford.
The home of another member of the volleyball team, sophomore Melissa Moenkedick, also was destroyed.
The volleyball team has always been a close-knit group. But dealing with what happened to their school and their town brought them even closer together,
“The day of the tornado we were together at a volleyball tournament, so we actually went into the whole situation together,” Sue Volkmann said. “We came home together to see everything that had happened, and we’ve worked through this whole thing together.
“I think it put a lot of things into perspective real fast. The day it happened, volleyball pretty much ended for the summer and a lot of fun times ended for the summer. Going to the lake every day wasn’t going to happen and a frame of mind changed. But you’ve got to give these kids credit. Not only this community but surrounding communities, we had kids from different towns working every day. They didn’t bat an eye. Sometimes we kind of wonder if this generation doesn’t work as hard, but they really stepped up.”
The rest of the summer was filled with the sounds of chain saws and heavy equipment. The usual summer routine was gone, but the volleyball players had a familiar refuge once the season began.
“I think volleyball was a good way to get away from all the tornado stuff,” Crawford said. “The summer was so hectic with everything happening, and volleyball was actually a routine that we could get back into. We could settle down and be together again.”
The Wolverines have dominated their competition this season, with a record of 30-0 that includes 28 matches in which they have not lost a game. The only teams to win a game against the Wolverines were Minnetonka and North St. Paul (both are 3A schools), which lost 2-1 in tournaments.
“Everyone is good at their own thing, and there are a lot of different hitters so we can spread the ball around,” said senior middle hitter Rachel Craig.
Wadena-Deer Creek went 30-5 last year, placing fifth at the state tournament. The current seniors will make their third consecutive trip to state this week, and that experience is invaluable as they seek their school’s first state volleyball title.
“The first year we were down there we just wanted to touch the floor, so we were dropping papers to touch the floor,” said Sue Volkmann.” And then it was getting out there and playing the ball out of the big black hole up in the ceiling. But we’ve been there, done that, and now we’re ready to go down there and play.”
Wadena-Deer Creek’s quarterfinal opponent is Delano (22-8) at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“The first two years we were kind of timid the first couple games,” Crawford said. “But this year I think we’re going to be so confident. We want the state title so bad.”
Whether the Wolverines win the championship or not, this has been a season no one will ever forget.
“We have lots of good people here and great kids,” said Gallant. “How you deal with adversity says something about you.”
To see a photo gallery from Wadena-Deer Creek, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 199
*Miles John has driven: 5,337
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