In unique season, Pirates trying to come together on the fly
Last Thursday was the Crookston girls' soccer team's first postseason win since 2007, but Rylee Solheim and Mallorie Sundeen had little time to celebrate.
Solheim and Sundeen would be representing the Pirates in volleyball later that evening — not even 90 minutes after both contributed to a 7-0 Section 8A play-in win over Walker-Hackensack-Akeley.
As soon as they could, the two juniors ran from the soccer field to the gym about a quarter of a mile away. They changed uniforms, grabbed a bite to eat and joined the volleyball team just in time for warmups and a full pregame routine, which consisted of cheering on the Pirates' C and JV teams while trying to get their own energy up.
"I'm used to playing volleyball, so it's easier to get out of that soccer mindset and into volleyball," Solheim said.
Before Crookston's A-team took the court against Ada-Borup West, the entire squad, including Solheim and Sundeen, went out into the hall behind the gym and had their usual pregame pep talk.
It was just the second time the Pirates had all been together this season.
When the Minnesota State High School League ruled in August that football and volleyball would be postponed to the spring due to COVID-19, it left scores of athletes without a home for the fall. Solheim and Sundeen were two. They, along with JV players Kailee Magsam and Hanna Brouse, traded in their volleyball shoes for soccer cleats. Sophomore Libby Salentine, meanwhile, joined the swimming team. Senior Emma Boll picked up tennis.
But on Sept. 21, the MSHSL reversed course, allowing football and volleyball to start in October. Suddenly, teams and players were scrambling again.
Crookston coach Ashley Stopa recognized that 40 percent of her varsity squad was playing other sports at the moment, and tried her best to accommodate them. She reassured them that she knew their commitments to soccer, swimming and tennis were just as strong as they were to volleyball.
"Coaches made it pretty easy on us by scheduling around stuff," Solheim said. "They were really good with that."
But this meant that the Pirates, coming into their season-opener, only had one full team practice under their belt.
In September, Stopa theorized teams that had been together for a while would have an advantage in a short, quickly-set-up season. By this, she was directly referring to experience and upperclassmen. But it also applies to matchups like Thursday's.
Ada-Borup West's only other fall sport for girls is cross country. The Cougars' players had fewer options upon the initial cancellation. Now, as a result, they have fewer hoops to jump through to get their team together.
This isn't even to mention the drain of practicing and competing in two different sports at once — let alone doing both on the same day.
"It's been kind of tough switching between practices," Sundeen said. "We'll from soccer right to volleyball and be tired from that."
On Thursday, Solheim and Sundeen did their best to not show it. They led the team in kills, with six and five respectively, and Solheim also had a team-high nine digs as Crookston took the first set from the defending Section 8A runners-up.
"For me it was kind of on and off," Solheim said. "(I had) high energy levels every once in a while, and then I'd get kind of, ugh."
Ultimately, the Cougars pulled away to win in four sets. For a team that had only been fully together once before, Stopa liked what she saw.
"Their energy, their excitement and their drive to do better, I really noticed in this first game," Stopa said. "I saw determination and communication. They really wanted to be out on the court. They really wanted to make sure that everything that they do is to their best abilities."
That, coupled with what Stopa saw in the Pirates' three-set loss at Fertile-Beltrami on Saturday, gives her optimism for what the team can accomplish. Her team is behind the 8-ball in a number of ways — young, still coming together and stretched thin for now — but the same things stood out in their first two games.
To Stopa, they appear to be doing all they can to compensate.
"They listen very well and they adapt very well. I'm really impressed with their ability to make gains in just a short amount of time," she said Saturday. "This team's unique in every ball that hits the floor on our side, they're wondering what they can do differently. They're very reflective in their play.
"I think that most of them on the bus or at home will be like, 'Okay, I need to work on this, I need to work on that.' Even though we don't have a practice in between, I think they're gonna be thinking about all the things they can work on and bring to the court in the next game."
That's Monday evening against Sacred Heart. At the very least, there's no soccer game, swim meet or tennis match before.
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