New-look Wrens, Ogichidaag off to a positive start
CLOQUET—Amy Bentow and Courtney Thompson are high school volleyball coaches in their first season on the sidelines.
Yet, by watching the players smile, laugh and simply enjoy Monday evening's match between Wrenshall and Fond du Lac Ojibwe, it's hard to tell.
Bentow's Wrens flew past Thompson's Ogichidaag 25-12, 25-15, 25-14, but that was far from the whole story at the well-attended game held at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School in Cloquet.
Plenty of people watched as the two young coaches confidently led their respective small town teams with poise and positivity. It was easy to see the girls like to play for both Bentow and Thompson.
"She makes me a better volleyball player," said FDL senior Cassandra Curran of Thompson.
"She's helped up develop in just these short few weeks that we've had her as a coach," added Wrenshall junior Cheyanne Carlson of Bentow.
Bentow, 21, is as busy as they come. In addition to working, she's also a nursing student and volleyball coach. She is from Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, a small western Minnesota school not far from Moorhead.
In fact, Bentow, who stands nearly 6 feet, was a middle hitter at Concordia College in Moorhead, before tearing both ACLs.
Although injuries ended her career as a Cobber, Bentow — currently healthy — still laces up her volleyball shoes nowadays against her Wrens, putting up plenty of difficulties.
"Every practice I will challenge them," Bentow said with a chuckle.
Speaking of challenges, Bentow's team is just that. Led by a strong junior class of Carlson, Emily Adkins, Abby Belcastro and identical twins Paige and Ashley Johnson — all five returning starters — Wrenshall (5-1) is off to a quick start and looking to fly even higher throughout the fall. Last year, the Wrens won nine games. This time around, they aim to eclipse that mark by the end of September.
"This is definitely the strongest team we've had," said Carlson. "Just because we're [a small school] doesn't mean we can't kick butt sometimes."
That's often the case when running things through Carlson. Centering Wrenshall's attack, the near 6-foot middle hitter — just like Bentow — is constantly looking to swing and score throughout transitions. Monday, she led all players with 16 kills, sending several shots whistling down the sidelines in the blink of an eye.
"She sees the court well," said Bentow. "And she just loves and breathes the sport."
While Carlson counted plenty of kills Monday, she also added 14 digs, playing in all six rotations. Adkins added seven kills and 17 digs, while Paige Johnson quarterbacked the offense with 26 set assists.
Belcastro, listed as an outside hitter, could add serving specialist to her title. The 5-foot-9 veteran was a perfect 25-for-25 from the serve line, racking up 10 aces and chipping in 18 digs.
In their sweep Tuesday of Two Harbors, Carlson and Adkins accounted for 26 kills and 22 digs, while Johnson tossed 28 assists and Belcastro again counted a team-best 19 digs.
"I believe we can go really far," Carlson said confidently.
"We're excited," added Bentow. "Hopefully at the end of the season, we end with a bang."
Results aside, Bentow — who took over from Denise North — is just grateful to be around the game she so dearly loves.
"I've lived and breathed this sport growing up, so it's fun to see these girls develop at something that I enjoy too," said Bentow. "I'm just lucky and honored.
"They've opened their arms to me."
The same can be said of Thompson, 22, who took over for coach Dale Sautbine, who retired after 32 seasons on the Fond du Lac sideline.
Sautbine attended the match Monday, along with Athletic Director Earl Otis. Thompson's two children — 4-year-old Travis Jr. and 1-year-old Laila — attended with their father, Travis Brown Sr.
The atmosphere was one of familiarity and fun for the Ogichidaag, who have improved a lot since day one, Thompson said. Monday they showed flashes — they led early in each set — and as their schedule continues, victories could certainly be in the offing.
"It's really rewarding to see the things we work on at practice come out at the games," Thompson said. "When our spirits are high, we're a much better team, so we're trying to keep our positivity up while working hard and hustling."
Thompson is surely trying to instill that in her team. She is a sponge for learning more about the game, often looking for tips to not only better herself, but also her girls. She has a quiet confidence. The team may be winless, but Thompson and Fond du Lac (0-3) have enjoyed their time together thus far.
Along with Curran, fellow seniors Drakkara Day, Tamara Martineau, Jaylynn Foster, Aleisha Fox and junior Kaila Dufault all log major minutes for Thompson. The team has 19 girls rostered, fielding both a junior varsity and varsity program.
Yet, its Curran, the team's 6-foot middle hitter, who has the coolest story.
The Cloquet High School senior — who plays for the Ogichidaag via the athletic agreement between the two schools — played her freshman season with the Lumberjacks, then took both her sophomore and junior years off before deciding to come back this fall.
Curran, who had a handful of service aces Monday, is one of the team's top threats. Thompson has high praise for the righty.
"We really like to utilize her, she's a big help," said Thompson. "She's a great leader on the court, both in practices and at games."
Curran admitted it's taken a little time to dust off her volleyball skills, but the 18-year-old is coming around just fine, as evidenced Monday.
"It's like taking an old book off the shelf and just dusting it off," said Curran, noting she's so delighted she returned to the sport for one final season. "It's been a good ride."
Meanwhile, Thompson's ride is just beginning. Speaking confidently of her team and the program she is now part of, Thompson was asked if she'll put in 32 years like Sautbine did. By then, she'll be 54.
"I think I could, physically," she said with a chuckle. "This is a game I love being around.
"Whether we walk off the court with a win or a loss, I still feel like we win when we utilize things that we learned. We just want to take something away from each game."
And that will likely be many more games for the rookie coach, who already sounds like a longtime veteran.