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A Gruber rite of passage

The Gruber sisters have turned the state volleyball tournament into a family tradition and now the youngest, Ally, is heading to her first state tournament. Ally, center, poses for a photo with her sisters following the Section 5A championship in Little Falls. From left, Sarah, Becca, Ally, Maggie and Katie. Submitted photo1 / 3
From left, BBE's Ally Gruber, Kenzie Thiescafer and Jenna Dingmann cheer on Maggie Gruber in a volleyball match. Submitted photo2 / 3
BBE's Ally Gruber, right, poses with sister Becca and cousin Jacob Weller after a section championship. Submitted photo. 3 / 3

The Gruber sisters are five-for-five.

BBE's Section 5A championship victory over Pine River-Backus last Saturday punched the Jaguars' first ticket to the state tournament since 2010 and created a number of memories for every member of the team.

For Ally Gruber, though, it was a rite of passage.

Ally Gruber, a senior hitter for the Jaguars this season, will be the fifth Gruber sister to make a state tournament appearance when she and the rest of the Jaguars take the court at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. BBE, the tournament's No. 3 seed with take on New Life Academy.

A family tradition

The Grubers are synonymous with BBE volleyball. Jaguars teams have reached state tournaments in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010, and all featured a Gruber.

Katie, the eldest, and Sarah helped guide the Jaguars to the 2005 berth, the program's first. In 2007, Maggie, the middle child, reached the first of her three state tournaments, along with Sarah. Becca made it four-for-four with an appearance in 2010 alongside Maggie.

If you zoom out from the sisters just a bit, cousin Tiffany (Gruber) Breitbach played alongside Katie and Sarah in 2005, and Tiffany's sister, Shannon, played in 2007 and 2008. To top it off, cousin Jenny (Gruber) Welle, was an assistant coach for all four state tournament teams.

And Ally was there every time, donning a Jaguar mask and cat-print sleeves and cheering on her big sisters.

"I just remember sitting up there and looking down at the big court, and seeing the name Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa and getting to watch my sisters and I'd wave to them. It was unreal," Ally said.

Window closing?

Going to the state tournament became a family tradition, just like Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks later. Now, after an eight-year hiatus, the Grubers and the Jaguars are back.

"It's been one of my goals since fourth grade, the last time we were there," Ally said. "I just remember sitting up in the stands thinking, 'I want that to be me.' So it's always been a really high goal and last year at the section finals when we lost to Pine River-Backus it just made me want it even more."

BBE battled with Pine River-Backus in 2017, losing 3-1 (28-27, 21-25, 25-19, 25-16), and graduated eight seniors, meaning hopes for a fifth state tournament appearance looked bleak. The window, in all likelihood, was closed.

But a summer volleyball league proved to be an eye-opener for everyone involved. The new-look Jaguars kept up with the likes of Alexandria and surpassed expectations while growing as a team.

"This team has worked really hard this year," said BBE sophomore setter Karsee Kampsen. "A lot of people don't really know that but there's so many times we stayed after practice because something wasn't clicking right or we just didn't have the chemistry we thought we had and we picked it up. I think that's why we're here. We played a lot of good teams during summer league. We played Alexandria and they're a great team, and we never wanted the ball to drop. That's when we realized we could go to state if we worked at it."

Still in the cards

The Jaguars continued to grow as a team as summer turned to fall and BBE went to the Southwest Minnesota Challenge in Marshall to take on the state's top teams.

In most years, BBE would win a match or two, but this year things were different. The Jaguars went 3-2, defeating Chaska, New Prague and Eastview while narrowly falling to Wayzata. Turns out a state tournament berth was still in the cards.

"Everyone realized we have the talent to do anything," Ally Gruber said. "We took that moment and said, 'Let's make a difference this season.' So that was really big for us to go down there and have a showing there."

The success in Marshall carried over to the rest of the season. The Jaguars lost just two matches the rest of the way, cruising to a 26-4 overall record, up from 18-14 the year before.

BBE battled Pine River-Backus again for a section title but destiny sided with the Jaguars this time as they won 3-1 (25-22, 25-20, 18-25, 25-20).

Kampsen, Gruber and head coach Kevin Weller, making his fourth state tournament as the BBE leader, all agree the team's chemistry is a gamechanger this season.

"I think our bond is special," Gruber said. "It's amazing how we lost so many seniors from last year and we're almost entirely new and most of the playing we've done together came over the summer. Over that short period of time, how close we became and the friendships that are formed in this small season of volleyball has been a real gamechanger. We keep tabs on each other and we respect each other."

More than chemistry

The team has more than just chemistry, though. BBE is a dynamic team with a slew of two-way athletes.

Kampsen, for example, enters the tournament with 900 set assists and an average of 10.5 sets per assist while Gruber paced the team with 333 kills. Gruber also finished with 254 digs and 41 ace serves.

In addition to Gruber, the Jaguars had three athletes log 200 or more kills with Brittany Berge (255), Katherine Mastey (203) and Emily Knight (202), and the Jags hit .255 as a team. Defensively, Emily Kern led the way with 397 digs.

BBE will go up against a New Life Academy team which is in the state tournament for the second year in a row. The Eagles went 2-1 in last year's tournament, losing to Minneota in the opening round before defeating Pine River-Backus and Cook County in the consolation bracket. This year, the Eagles are 19-10, winning all three Section 4A matches by 3-0 scores.

Many of the New Life Eagles have the experience of playing on the big stage but Gruber and Weller are doing their best to share their experiences and prepare the team for playing in an arena. Even still, Gruber acknowledges no words can do the experience justice.

"We're all talking about how we should go out and look out at the court and go through the tunnel for the first time before we go out there and play. Just stay playing the game," Gruber said. "One of the most important bits of advice they gave me was to stay calm and play the game like any other, even though we're in an overwhelming situation."

It's sure to be overwhelming but if BBE does, in fact, treat this match like any other it should go the Jaguars way.

For more than eight years, Ally's sisters have been able to jokingly tease about reaching a state tournament but if this year's Jaguars keep on this path, she could be the one with the last laugh and a chunk of hardware.