Evolution has carried KoMets to state tournament

Nov. 9—Things weren't looking so hot for the Kasson-Mantorville volleyball team this summer.

There was plenty of interest from the KoMets players, and attitudes were good. But. . .

"I'd come home after practices, and I'd tell my wife, 'We have no chance,'" K-M coach Adam VanOort said. "We weren't good at all."

VanOort was only slightly exaggerating his feelings. And that the KoMets looked less than polished in July wasn't shocking. After all, they were trying to replace seven seniors from the season before.

—Minnesota state volleyball tournament pairings

—KoMets dig deep, sweep Stewartville in Section 1AAA title match

Well, four months later, VanOort's description of his team is decidedly different than that summertime take.

Instead, there's this from the coach: "This team has improved more than any group I've ever had. We've learned how to score in different situations, the way we attack blocks has improved immensely, this is the best serving team I've ever had, and our backcourt is the best it's ever been. These kids have just really stepped up. I'm really proud of them."

They've improved enough to be considered one of two favorites to win a Class AAA state tournament that begins Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, K-M starting off at 7 p.m. against unseeded Sauk Rapids-Rice.

K-M (28-3) is seeded and ranked second. Marshall is No. 1.

Thrilled to be back

It's the KoMets' first trip to state since 2018, when they finished third overall. K-M returns two players who were a part of that team, setter Maddie Converse and defensive specialist Cate Wanous.

Converse, who agrees that the KoMets looked nothing like a state tournament team this summer, is immensely grateful for the turnaround.

She'd longed to get back to state.

"Getting to this point is really special for me, as a senior," said Converse, an all-Hiawatha Valley League setter the last three years, honorable-mention All-State last season and a strong candidate to be All-State this season. "That's especially true after the COVID year last season (when there was no state tournament)."

While Converse notes physical improvements throughout the KoMets' lineup, it's the team's mental makeup that's impressed her most.

It's a strong-minded group.

"What makes us the most dangerous isn't really a volleyball skill," Converse said. "But it's the way we stay calm in seemingly big moments."

Never was that more true than in the KoMets' Section 1AAA championship match with its biggest rival, fellow annual state power Stewartville. After barely winning the first set, 25-23, K-M trailed 17-10 in the second one.

That's when Converse watched it happen again, her teammates completely undaunted, and in unison, raising their focus.

"We all rallied around each other and stayed calm," Converse said. "We didn't let outside factors affect us. We don't get rattled. Also, our defense has been great. We've all bought in that we don't let the ball touch the floor."

Sure enough, all of that worked, including lots more of that elite K-M defense as the KoMets battled to a 25-22 win in that second set, then won the third 25-19 for a sweep.

K-M has gotten all of this done minus the height it's been blessed with in recent years. K-M's tallest player is an eighth-grader, 5-foot-10 Aloaha Ricke.

But no matter, at least so far. The KoMets have found ways to work around it, with Converse setting quicker than ever, K-M hitters studying their blockers and knowing when to hit around them versus at them, and the team often not relying on big hits, but instead willing to grind points out with their defense.

And that defense, it's been special.

"Our thing is to go for every ball, even if we don't think we can get it," Converse said. "Because we are shorter, defense means a lot."