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Minnesota: The Land Of 12,000 Volleyball Players (And Counting)

Look no further than preseason All-Big Ten selections Adrianna Nora, left, and Hannah Tapp to see the kind of talent that grows in the state of Minnesota. Eric Miller/University of Minnesota

The name of the club -- Northern Lights -- breathes Minnesota. But you won't find ice skates, a Zamboni or hockey sticks anywhere at the club's expansive facility in Burnsville, a suburb south of Minneapolis.

Northern Lights is a volleyball club, the oldest of a half-dozen or so around the state that quietly turned Minnesota into a vibrant proving ground for college volleyball prospects over the past decade.

A recruiting combine at Northern Lights in December attracted 36 schools across all divisions from 10 states, some as far away as New York and New Mexico. Twenty-four Northern Lights players from 2013 are listed on college volleyball rosters this season.

Former U.S. men's and women's Olympic coach Hugh McCutcheon knew a little about the Minnesota club scene before taking the University of Minnesota women's coaching job in 2012. The Gophers recruit nationally, as they did under former coach Mike Hebert. But this season, seven of McCutcheon's 14 players are Minnesota club products, including preseason all-Big Ten selections Adrianna Nora and Hannah Tapp. All came from Northern Lights except Nora, who played for Minnesota One, another prolific club known locally as M1.

Most of that Minnesota talent will be on display Saturday night as the 17th-ranked Gophers (11-1) host defending national champion Penn State (13-1) on ESPN3, with a rebroadcast Sunday on ESPN2.

"You hear about Northern Lights, you hear about [Minnesota] Select and M1, the main clubs," McCutcheon said. "But it wasn't until I got here to really look at the job that I was able to see just how big a part volleyball is of the fabric of this state, how important the sport is here and how good it is. The caliber of players, the level of instruction, the competition, it keeps getting better every year."

Of course, McCutcheon had a little inside information. His wife, former Olympian Wiz Bachman, is a Minnesotan who competed for Northern Lights before moving on to UCLA.

"What you're finding now is, it's not really a secret anymore for college coaches, and it hasn't been probably for the last 10 years," said Brady Starkey, head coach of Concordia University in St. Paul, winner of a record seven consecutive NCAA championships in Division II. "People come from everywhere to recruit the kids we have here. Kids are going out to play at D-I schools that are farther away."

But a lot stay home, too. Minnesota clubs produce so many elite players that seven collegiate programs from the state appeared in American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) polls this week.

Besides the Gophers ranked at the NCAA's highest level, three of the top seven institutions in Division II are from Minnesota -- Minnesota-Duluth (second), Concordia (third), and Southwest Minnesota State (seventh). And in Division III, St. Thomas, St. Benedict and Augsburg made the Top 25. St. Thomas, whose main campus is three miles from Concordia, brought home the 2012 NCAA Division III title, giving the city of St. Paul two volleyball champions in the same year. St. Thomas coach Thanh Pham and Starkey are pals who coached together at M1.

"For the most part, there's such a large amount of talented kids that it spreads the wealth for everybody," Starkey said.

Concordia has been a big beneficiary. Starkey jokes that he has no recruiting budget -- "It's me driving to local tournaments," he said -- so he leans on Minnesota club contacts. Ten of his 11 players are Minnesotans. Seven came from Minnesota Select and Northern Lights, while three played at rural high schools with no access to an elite club.

"Staying close to home was really important to me," said Concordia junior libero Taylor Dordan, a Minnesota Select product from Blaine, a northern suburb. "My parents paid for my whole club volleyball career. To then go to school far away where they couldn't come to my games very often ... I didn't like that idea."

Coaches Curt Glesmann and Doug Bergman founded Northern Lights in 1993. Bergman left five years later to form M1, based in Bloomington. Both clubs sponsor travel teams for girls ages 12 through 18 on the national junior circuit. South Carolina standouts Kellie and Taylr McNeil developed their games at M1. Newer clubs like Vital, Kokoro and Southwest Minnesota Juniors develop quality players as well.

"When I started out, Minnesota volleyball was not very strong, and there were only a few clubs here in the state," said Adam Beamer, the Northern Lights co-director who began with Minnesota Juniors, a Northern Lights forerunner, in the late 1980s. "Now there's like 1,800 clubs and 12,000-some players. It's gone from really small to where it's really exploded. Now, it's huge."

Huge is right. Northern Lights started with five teams and 60 girls. Last year the club sponsored 33 teams with 319 girls. Three teams finished in the top three at the U.S. Junior Nationals in Minneapolis in July, with the under-15s taking gold.

"Used to be, we were just happy to send a team to nationals," Beamer said. "Now we're kind of disappointed if we don't medal."

The Gophers benefitted from the club scene long before McCutcheon arrived. With varying numbers of Minnesotans, the Gophers have qualified for every NCAA tournament since 1999 and advanced to three Final Fours, most recently in 2009.

Last year's team, led by senior All-Americans Tori Dixon and Ashley Wittman -- both Minnesotans -- lost to Stanford in the Sweet 16. Dixon, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker and the daughter of former NFL offensive lineman David Dixon, is playing for Team USA at the FIVB world championships in Italy.

Hannah Tapp and her twin sister, Paige, both sophomore middle blockers, committed to Minnesota before joining Northern Lights. Paige said the keener competition improved their overall skills significantly.

"Just competing against some of the best players in the nation, and playing with some of the best talent in the Twin Cities, was extremely valuable as I came to the Gophers," said Paige, the Big Ten's defensive player of the week.

"I played volleyball, basketball and track throughout high school. The Gophers said we didn't have to play club, but it was a great experience. I ultimately made the decision that you can't pass up such a good opportunity. I'm so glad I did it. It was the best decision of my life. I got a ton better just playing with all these girls."

Nora, a 6-3 right-side hitter who transferred from Baylor, tried out for M1 in eighth grade after growing four inches to 5-11. Though nervous, she made the team.

"Club almost motivates you," said Nora, a Gophers ball girl as a teen. "You see how good these other girls are. There's competition on the court when you're playing, and competition when you want to go play ball in school. I wanted to play in college. It kind of made me want to be better.

"Club is such an important thing to get recruited. Many colleges overlook high school players, or only locals will come to high school games. Club is awesome for getting recruited, almost crucial."

McCutcheon left the women's national team and accepted the Minnesota job in part to spend more time with his wife and two children. The state's talent allows McCutcheon to recruit and still be home often.

"It's nice to be able to go watch a match up the road instead of jumping on a plane and flying somewhere," he said. "There's clearly an advantage to that. Just because it's easy doesn't necessarily means it's right or wrong. We're just trying to recruit the best kids. We're lucky that we have a few in our backyard, so it works out great."