Junior Olympic volleyball program flourishingWhat started as an adults-only volleyball league nearly 20 years ago has blossomed into one of the top off-season volleyball leagues in the region for local high school students – known as the Junior Olympics (JO).
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
What started as an adults-only volleyball league nearly 20 years ago has blossomed into one of the top off-season volleyball leagues in the region for local high school students – known as the Junior Olympics (JO).
The Cloquet-based Northland Volleyball Club started play in 1993 with four teams and 37 players.
Now, it’s much, much larger.
“At that time, there was another club in Duluth called Club North,” said Mike Patenaude, who currently coaches the JO’s 18-year-old team, “but they went out of business. Loren Wappes [who co-coached at the time] had a daughter playing there and our kids from Cloquet had no place to play. So six years ago, we added a division for Junior Olympics.”
At that time, Cloquet was the only community providing players. Then Esko came on board, and now the program boasts 105 players on 10 teams at four different age levels.
“We have kids from just about every school in the Polar League as well as Cloquet,” Patenaude said. “When Esko alone came in, we doubled the size of the program.”
At first, the teams’ rosters were kept organized by the home high schools of their players. Eventually, though, the teams were mixed up, and the results have been gratifying.
“Some liked it and others didn’t,” Patenaude said. “It’s a challenge, but at the end of the day we felt we had to offer better competition. Putting the teams together did that and it allowed us to play programs from Canada and the Twin Cities, and sometimes beating them.”
That policy allowed Patenaude to coach both Jessica and Katrina Newman of Barnum, who now play basketball at UMD, as well as other top players from around the region.
“We as a club got a lot more respect,” Patenaude added.
Team tryouts are held in November, and the season runs March through May. Patenaude is careful to make sure his players put playing sports at their own high school first, but he wants the players to get plenty of time on the court as well.
The program is still growing. This year, the club fielded competition teams in the U-12, U-14, U-16 and U-18 age brackets, with the U-14 “Raspberry” team winning its last two tournaments.
“There are 10 players on each competitive team after tryouts and the other players go to developmental teams,” Patenaude said. “Most everyone who starts the program comes back to it. We make sure it’s a good experience.”
This spring, all four local competition teams played in the 100-team Arrowhead Junior Volleyball League in addition to five tournaments still to come. That means nine game days for the players.
“We had our U-18 team finish second in its league,” Patenaude said. “There are other teams in the area too.”
One of those teams is the Minnesota North team, which features former UMD coach Jim Boos and current UMD assistant Kristin May coaching players.
“We see school teams playing at a college level,” Patenaude said. “With what Minnesota North is doing, why wouldn’t those kids play at a college level?”
Most of the team’s “home” matches are played at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, though a game night might find the teams playing just about anywhere in the region.
However, the local teams put a premium on trying to find a balance.
“School teams come first,” Patenaude said. “If we have a player with a school sports commitment on a given night, I tell them I don’t want to see them at a JO practice.”
Some of the Twin Cities programs take things very, very seriously.