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Celebration Saturday: When the CMCS Bluejays flew above the rest

Read when CMCS was the area’s first volleyball powerhouse

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CMCS' Maggie Freiborg (8) and Joy (Wubben) Tietz (6) attempt to block the spike of Fosston's Kelly Roysland early in the second game of the 2000 Class A state volleyball championship match. File photo

Sports editor’s note: This is the 10th installment of the ‘Celebration Saturday’ series highlighting top individual and team achievements in the West Central Tribune area. Today’s story looks at the Central Minnesota Christian girls volleyball program that won three consecutive Class A state championships from 1998-2000.

PRINSBURG — Traci Grussing guided the Central Minnesota Christian volleyball team from the early 1990s to mid-2000s. Within her tenure, the Bluejays were among the best teams the state had to offer.

Helping the program become a yearly fixture at the state tournament in November, Grussing collected nearly 400 wins on the sidelines before stepping down from her position in 2006. Averaging close to 24 wins a season during that period, CMCS was a model of success on the court, but the stretch that made the program the area’s standard was from 1998-2000, when the Bluejays took home three consecutive Class A state titles.

CMCS was the third program in Minnesota history to bring home three straight volleyball crowns, joining Robbinsdale Armstrong (1980-85) and Tracy-Milroy (1994-96). Only Shakopee (2007-09) and Marshall (2011-2013) have entered the three-peat club since.

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“Everybody was pretty excited about volleyball and the community was excited,” Grussing said. “It sounds bad, but I don’t think we were worried about not making it back to state. I think everyone was just riding the positivity, the excitement and having a good time.”

Heartbreak to Glory

The story of CMCS’ trio of championships actually began in 1997, when it finished that season with a 31-4 record. The program earned the school’s first state tournament berth in any sport after ripping through Redwood Valley 3-0 in the Section 3A final. Prior to that year, the Bluejays were 0-3 in section finals.

Led by All-State senior setter Sara Ahrenholz and All-State senior hitter Stacie Vreeman, the team cruised to easy victories against two-loss St. James and undefeated Underwood in the state quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.

Jumping out to a 2-0 advantage versus Stewartville in the state final, CMCS was on the cusp of history, but it fell in the next three sets 4-15, 15-17, 12-15 to lose the championship. The fourth set was the toughest pill to swallow, as the Bluejays were up 11-5 and 13-11 before dropping the set with back-to-back errors.

“The girls who were coming back, we just were looking forward to the next season and for me, it felt like a huge accomplishment to make it that far,” Grussing said. “I still feel like we blew it in the championship (match), but just the fact that we made it finally to the state tournament and had such good people coming back, it didn’t take that long before we started forward to the next season.”

Despite losing four key contributors to graduation, the 1998 team was loaded and filled with familiar names. Six players on the roster had sisters who once played for the program. CMCS was particularly tall as well, featuring six players —senior hitters Kelli Vreeman, Cassie Wieberdink and Carrie Swart, junior hitter Melanie (Huisinga) VanderArk, sophomore hitters Maggie Freiborg and Joy (Wubben) Tietz — that were at 5-foot-10 or taller. Also, replacing Ahrenholz was Lindsey (VanderWell) Taatjes, who stood at 5-9.

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CMCS' Joy (Wubben) Tietz (right) slams down one of her 20 kills over Fosston's Chelsea Badurek in the Class A state volleyball championship match in 2000. File photo

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However, what’s the benefit of having height if the players can’t move and jump?

“I think our athleticism stood out for a Class A team,” Grussing said. “During that whole time, we went to tournaments during the season and played against, at the time, Class AA teams. We played against big schools and beat a lot of them, and I think our height was key there. But as far as Class A school, I just think the athleticism of the girls was the big thing.”

With a section-final sweep over top-ranked Jackson County Central, CMCS again stampeded past their first two state opponents: New London-Spicer and Blue Earth Area. In the state final, the Bluejays spilt the first two sets with Win-E-Mac before dominating the rest of the way.

Sealing the deal with a pair of kills from Kelli Vreeman, CMCS earned its first state championship triumph in school history.

“I think we were shocked at first that we had actually done it,” Taatjes said. “I just remember our fans and for our tiny little school, how many fans came out and supported us. The community support was the big thing that I remember the most, plus being able to celebrate with the seniors because we were all pretty close.”

Through their state run, the Bluejays racked up 58 ace blocks. The next closest team had 21.

‘Once it clicked, we rolled’

Finishing with a 32-2 record, the 1998 team was the area’s first volleyball state titleist, but there were plenty more medals on the way, in part because of the school’s size.

Other programs were able to stack their varsity roster with seniors while relegating their younger players to junior varsity. Because its school’s population was so small, CMCS played its young talent almost out of necessity, but that paid dividends in the long run.

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“It seemed like every year we would have two or even three girls that were All-State, but we would also have two freshman who were getting a ton of time and experience,” Grussing said. “And then a year or two later, they would be the ones who would be All-State and they’d be more freshman on the team.”

Taatjes added, “The seniors my freshman year were really good about including underclassmen in things the team was doing and always made sure that we were a part of the team, even though we were younger.”

Tietz was one of the players that saw spot duty as a freshman before garnering All-State recognition later in her career. As a junior in 1999, she missed six matches and the beginning of the team’s postseason run after coming down with mononucleosis, but she would eventually return to help the Bluejays complete what was arguably their most dominant campaign.

“I just remember wanting to play so badly and telling myself ‘I don’t want to be sick anymore. I’m going to do whatever I can do to get better so I can play with this team,’” Tietz said.

Allowing just 10 total points in their quarterfinal sweep over Oglivie, the Bluejays next needed three sets to extinguish Win-E-Mac in a state rematch. Led by Freiborg’s 16 kills and seven ace blocks, CMCS took care of Buffalo Lake-Hector 15-10, 15-2, 15-10 in the state final. A kill from freshman hitter Terrin (Post) DeBoer capped title No. 2.

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CMCS' Terrin (Post) DeBoer reaches up to deny an Ashby attack during the 2000 Class A state volleyball quarterfinals. Looking on are teammates Lindsey (VanderWell) Taatjes (3) and Joy (Wubben) Tietz (6). File photo

“Buffalo Lake-Hector played us tough and that surprised us a little bit,” Grussing said. “They were just scrappy and fast. It was an exciting match.”

CMCS soared to a 32-1 record, only losing to Class AAA White Bear Lake 2-1 in a regular-season tournament match. The ‘99 squad swept 30 of its 33 opponents and dropped four sets all season. Just a few years earlier, the Bluejays struggled in big moments to get over the hump. Now playing regularly on the state’s grandest stage, their collective confidence was through the roof.

“When I first started coaching there, (the girls) didn’t want to be cocky, so it was a struggle to get them to be confident, which is a totally different thing,” Grussing said. “But it seemed like once it clicked, we rolled.”

Picking up a fallen teammate

Another year, another 30-win season for the ladies from Prinsburg. In 2000, CMCS only suffered two losses to Class AAA Robbinsdale Armstrong and another hiccup against Tracy-Milroy-Balaton.

The year was especially memorable for Freiborg. Winning the state’s Miss Volleyball award, she collected 428 kills, 139 ace blocks and 118 digs in her final season. Freiborg became the 10th player in area history to record more than 1,000 kills and ended her career as the area’s all-time leader in blocks.

Ranked No. 1 throughout the season, the Bluejays made its fourth straight appearance in the state final and faced No. 2 Fosston. After taking the first set 15-4, they faced some adversity when Freiborg turned her ankle after stepping on Tietz’s foot in the second set. With their star forced to the bench, the Greyhounds tied the match at 1-1.

Were the two-time defending champs worried about being dethroned?

“For me, no. That sounds bad too, but I just had so much confidence in our team and they had so much experience at that point.,” Grussing said. “Maggie was by far the player who got the most attention, but we had six good players on the court all the time who could make up for her, so we had other people that can step in.”

Despite being involved in Freiborg’s injury, Tietz used the moment to energize her teammates.

“I remember feeling bad knowing that Maggie (was on the bench) and she’s sad and she’s hurt, but also remember having a moment of rallying the troops,” Tietz said. “We have to stay focused on what we’re doing. We still can do this.

“We didn’t overthink any moments. We weren’t like ‘Oh man, this is the state championship match and we need to do something spectacular.’ I just think we went out and we played hard.”

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CMCS' Lindsey Slagter prepares to nail one of her team-leading 13 kills against Meadow Creek Christian in the 2000 Class A state volleyball semifinals. File photo

The Bluejays closed out their third crown after winning the last two sets 15-9, 15-6. Freiborg would return to play late the match, but it was Taatjes (51 assists), Tietz (23 kills) and junior hitter Lindsey Slagter (18 kills) that led the way.

“That’s the most memorable match that I feel I played in high school,” Tietz said. “I can remember feeling confident and I was rolling. I was feeling good, I could see the court really well and I don’t know if this is true, but I feel like I was playing defense really well. ... It was just clicking.”

Along with back-row player Jill DeGroot, Freiborg, Taatjes and Tietz represented the most successful era. Each going home with no less than a state runner-up medal during their four years, the foursome enjoy a 125-10 record.

“I remember obviously being excited to be able to end with a win, but I also remember being a little bit sad that it was the last (match) that we’d ever play in high school just because it was so much fun and such a great group to play with,” Taatjes said.

Tietz added, “There were some good wins and some really good moments, but it’s always going to be for me about the people that you do this stuff with. That’s the thing that sticks out to me.”

Success after the titles

From 1997-2000, CMCS had seven different players make it to the All-State team. In that stretch, both Freiborg and Taatjes were selected three times.

When their high school careers came to an end, the duo each went on to play for the University of Minnesota while Tietz enjoyed a Hall of Fame career at Concordia University. Of the 11 players that started during the three-peat, seven played at the collegiate level.

While the team did not win another state championship, CMCS remained a Class A power under Grussing with five more state appearances in the next six years. That is a testament to the kind of program Grussing helped build. Two decades later, her coaching still resonates.

“Looking back now as a coach, the value of Traci and people that she coached with, as our coaches I think they did a really good job,” said Tietz, who spent years as a Cobblers assistant and will help the St. Thomas volleyball program make the transition into Division I this fall. “They were knowledgeable about the game, but they didn’t overcoach; they sat back and let some things happen. They didn’t get all crazy when it wasn’t going well and we were able to fight through it just by learning the game.... That’s not something that everyone has as a quality. That’s something that I really respect that Traci has. How she came across and her coaching style is something that I aspire to be as a coach.”

Celebration Saturday

Here’s a list of championships with the date the stories ran in the West Central Tribune:

May 16 — Alex Carlson and Chris Patten (2000 Litchfield boys tennis)

May 23 — 2009 New London-Spicer football

May 30 — 1985 Willmar girls golf

June 6 — 2005 Paynesville baseball

June 13 — Nikki Swenson (LQPV/D-B cross-country/track, 2007)

June 20 — The 1980-1981 Bird Island-Lake Lillian football and boys basketball teams

July 3 — 2010 Minnewaska girls golf team

July 11 — 1986 Midwest Minnesota girls basketball

July 18 — Link Steffen (Granite Falls-Clarkfield wrestling, 1993)

July 25 — The 1998-2000 Central Minnesota Christian volleyball team

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