MABEL – Sometimes the universe spins in an awesome way. One of those instances was on Tuesday evening in the comfortably small and classically styled Mabel-Canton High School gymnasium. Mabel – located in southeast Minnesota’s bluff country and billed as “Rural America’s Steam Engine Capital” – has a population of 780 souls and you’d be hard-pressed to find even one of them who does not root vociferously for the Mabel-Canton Cougars.
On this evening, the Cougars volleyball team was hosting the Lions of nearby Spring Grove. And here are some universally awesome truths: Both head coaches are graduates of Spring Grove … one of them used to work as an assistant for the other at Mabel-Canton … and they’re both named Morken.
Lonnie Morken has been coaching volleyball at Mabel-Canton since 1994. Lions coach Kelsey Morken once was Lonnie’s assistant with the Cougars. If they are related it’s a distant kind of deal, one of those fifth-cousins twice-removed things. But they are certainly good friends and great coaching colleagues.
“(The rivalry between the teams has) been going on forever and Mabel’s always been the one we look to as a measuring stick, to compare ourselves to,” Kelsey said a few minutes after Mabel-Canton recorded a memorable 23-25, 25-20, 25-13, 20-25, 15-13 victory.
Had Spring Grove pulled out the win, the universe may have begun spinning in another direction. That’s because Mabel-Canton has absolutely owned this Southeast Conference rivalry. In fact, Spring Grove has not defeated the Cougars in volleyball for 21 years. That’s right, the last time that happened was 1996. Tuesday’s victory was Mabel-Canton’s 58th in a row over the Lions. Before this five-setter, the Lions had won only three sets against the Cougars in the previous 57 matches.
Morken’s career record is 622-118; he was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011 and he is one of only 11 coaches to record 600 career wins. His team has a 21-3 record this season and is ranked ninth in Class 1A. Since the start of the 2015 season the Cougars have a total record of 70-10.
Those kinds of head-turning facts may lead you to believe that the Cougars have been steady participants in the state tournament. But they hail from Section 1, which is a stronghold of quality teams in lots of sports, and the Mabel-Canton volleyball team has played at state just twice, in 2000 and 2001. They have been defeated in nine other section championship matches since Morken took over as coach.
All but one of those section final losses have been to Bethlehem Academy, which won state titles in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014 and was the state runner-up four times between 2002 and 2015.
“Some years they beat us in four or five sets (for the section title) and then swept everybody at state,” Morken said.
Four Section 1 teams are among the current Class 1A top 10: Bethlehem Academy is No. 3, Hayfield is No. 5, Caledonia is No. 8 and Mabel-Canton is No. 9.
“We want to get our kids playing at the highest possible level,” Morken said. “There are some great coaches down here, and a lot of it is tradition. Our little kids want to grow up and be good at volleyball.”
Mabel-Canton’s enrollment in grades nine through 12 is only 72 students (Spring Grove has 101). Ninth-graders can play important roles, as evidenced by Cougars setter Kenidi McCabe, the first freshman to play that position since Morken became the coach. The Cougars’ varsity roster consists of two seniors (Savannah Slafter and Dakota Delaney), three juniors, three sophomores and five ninth-graders.
“We typically end up having a lot of younger kids playing and we try to get them skilled up at a young age,” Morken said. “We try to put kids in positions where they can succeed.”
Tuesday’s loss gave Spring Grove a record of 19-5. Kelsey Morken was proud of her team, which bounced back to defeat Houston on Thursday.
“Section 1 is unreal,” she said. “Even if we do have a great game and we get past someone like Mabel (in the section playoffs), we’ll still have teams like Caledonia, Wabasha, Hayfield, Bethlehem Academy, just a ton of teams that are awesome.”
This much is certain: Whoever represents Section 1 at the state tournament will be tested and tough. --To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
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