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Thompson volleyball veterans using lessons from past leaders to power Tommies to state tournament

Thompson plays Langdon-Edmore-Munich in Thursday's North Dakota Class B state tournament quarterfinals in Bismarck.

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Thompson's Bailey Munson saves the ball in the backcourt as Alexis Telehey looks on during their match against Langdon Area/Edmore/Munich Friday in the state volleyball semi-finals in Fargo. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Mackenzie Hughes started for the Thompson volleyball team for four seasons, leading the Tommies to four state tournament appearances including a North Dakota Class B championship in 2018.

This season, in the Tommies' first season without Hughes, players say they're still using Hughes' standard for leadership in molding a re-tooled Thompson team that opens the state tournament Thursday against No. 3 Langdon-Edmore-Munich in the quarterfinals at 3 p.m. in Bismarck.

"Kenzie was a huge influence on the whole team," said Thompson senior libero Bailey Munson, who surpassed 1,000 career digs during the Region 2 tournament. "When she left, there were openings and voids, but she almost set the path for us. She showed us how is to be a good leader and what that looks like."

Another Thompson senior, Libby Koerber agreed.

"Hughes was an amazing player," said Koerber, who is 31 assists away from 1,000 for her career. "She's a great player and a great friend. She taught me what it takes to be a winning team. I think we're taking what she taught us and really translating it into this season."

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The Tommies finished third at state last season and graduated Hughes, as well as standouts Maddie Stefonowicz, Lexi Telehey and Jada Wilke.

Still, Thompson has gone 32-5 this season and right back in the mix among the state's elite. But despite Thompson's state tournament experience as a program, the Tommies will have plenty of players with state inexperience.

"We have four that have some experience," Thompson coach Lisa Strand said. "The rest of them are all new to it, at least on the court. They were there, but they knew they weren't playing so there was no pressure. They were just enjoying the moment. That does help but being on the floor makes a big difference. When you've been on the floor, you might not have that wide-eyed look anymore."

Thompson has seen 5-foot-4 sophomore setter Sydney Schwabe step in to some of Hughes' setting role this year. Schwabe has 494 assists this season.

Junior Clara Stevens, junior Summer Hegg and sophomore Brenna Martin have all taken on increased roles. The 6-foot Hegg leads the Tommies with 390 kills this year.

"Our two middles are brand new," Strand said. "Summer had limited time last year and this year she's one of our go-to hitters. Those two have made the biggest strides this year."

Senior Lexi Zafke has 247 kills this season, while senior Mya Krogstad has 226. Martin has 164 and Koerber has 154.

"I think especially at the beginning of the season, we were really figuring each other out," Koerber said. "Those younger girls have stepped up as leaders on the court and become players we can turn to."

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Strand said she's been lucky to have a history of teams with good chemistry but this group has been particularly close.

"(The successful season) has truly depended on how we were able to work together," Munson said. "We had a lot of warming up to do but as the season goes on everyone gets more comfortable and close. We create this bond, we're there for each other and bring each other up. I truly think that is what helps."

Up next for the Tommies is Langdon-Edmore-Munich, a program responsible for two of Thompson's losses this season. The Cardinals are led by senior Morgan Freije, who has 576 kills this season.

"The first thing that comes to mind with Langdon is Freije," Strand said. "She's a real force. She's not alone but she does carry a brunt of the attack. She's a good blocker and can serve well. We have to know where she is all the time. You can't slip up and forget. They have a good cast around her. They're consistent and disciplined players. They know how to pass the ball and place the ball. Coach (Rich) Olson is one of the best scouting coaches I've ever talked to. He can probably tell me more about my team than I can."

Munson said the Tommies need to focus inward.

"We just have to play our own game," she said. "With us playing Langdon, we're really focused on what we're good at and places we need work on. We're going to practice hard and focus on what we need to do. Hopefully, it pays off and we play our game."

Thompson at a glance

Coach: Lisa Strand.

Record: 32-5, Region 2 champions.

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Kill leaders: Summer Hegg 390, Lexi Zafke 247, Mya Krogstad 226, Brenna Martin 164, Libby Koerber 154, Clara Stevens 70.

Assist leaders: Koerber 568, Sydney Schwabe 494.

Dig leaders: Bailey Munson 523, Krogstad 380, Koerber 278, Schwabe 206, Jasmine Welke 198.

Serving leaders: Koerber 54 aces, Schwabe 30, Welke 30, Krogstad 21, Jordan West 18, Hegg 17.

State tournament opponent: Langdon-Edmore-Munich, Region 4 champions.

State tournament history: The Tommies have five state championships (1997, 1998, 2004, 2005, 2018). Thompson has been to state 18 times (1991, 1995-98, 2003-05, 2007-08, 2013-14, 2017-21).

Related Topics: VOLLEYBALLPREP SPORTS
Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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