VOLLEYBALL: State tourney perfect rally time for city of post-tornado Wadena
ST. PAUL The worst night of the summer, when 17 tornadoes roared through Minnesota, Sue Volkmann's Wadena-area home was wiped out. The high school volleyball coach was at a tournament in Bemidji when the phone rang during the middle of a match: T...
The worst night of the summer, when 17 tornadoes roared through Minnesota, Sue Volkmann's Wadena-area home was wiped out.
The high school volleyball coach was at a tournament in Bemidji when the phone rang during the middle of a match: The family farm -- eight buildings, three silos and cattle -- was gone.
"What we had left would fit into the back of a pickup," Volkmann said.
From the moment she returned to Wadena and saw more than 100 people in her yard clearing debris, the outpouring of support has been inspiring. "They're very good people," she said.
And now a big part of the town has turned out at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to cheer her and her team at the state volleyball tournament, where the Wolverines are the No. 2 seed in Class 2A, after their remarkable undefeated season despite a long, tough summer.
"We had it in our minds that we would make state before the tornado," junior Avery Jackson said. "Now, we're doing it for the whole town, not just ourselves."
"We needed something to rally around," said Wadena-Deer Creek Athletics Director Norm Gallant, who started the job two days before the tornado hit. "Since the start of the season, this has been something to feel really good about."
The Wadena tornado was more than a mile wide and roared for 10 miles with winds as strong as 170 miles an hour. The June 17 storm flattened about a quarter of the town and injured 20 people. Part of the roof on the high school was ripped off and thrown across the street.
A fight to get on the court
Expectations were high for this year with every player back from last season's state tournament team, including Courtney and Caitlin Volkmann, daughters of the coach. Losing a place to practice when volleyball season began in August could have been a big setback. But since the elementary school a block away escaped major harm, the Wolverines varsity team was able to take over that gym after helping spruce it up.
"The kids just wanted to be in the gym and play volleyball," Volkmann said. "We just wanted to get in there and play. It didn't matter where."
Senior Kelsi Crawford rode back to Wadena from Bemidji with the Volkmann family after the storm. She and all of the Wolverines players helped clean up what was left of the farm, going through the fields to pick up garbage and steel amid the summer heat.
"It brought us closer together," Crawford said. "We all know that we're all family and we're going to be there no matter what.
"Anything anybody ever needs, they know they have a teammate and a best friend to be there."
Their coach wasn't surprised.
"You call them, and they're here in a second," Volkmann said. "And it's not just volleyball players. All the kids."
Once the season started, fans arrived in droves for every home match, sitting on folding chairs until temporary bleachers were wheeled in. The Wolverines put on quite a show, winning every home match in straight sets.
The big rally
Despite the challenges of rebuilding the town, Gallant said the mood this week has been "giddy."
"But I see a real sense of focus," he said. "I think a lot of people are savoring the moment. A lot of choked-back tears; it's been quite a ride. A lot of people have worked tremendously hard to get to where we're at."
The backbone of encouragement has been from those close to home.
A throng of Wadena-Deer Creek superfans in blue and gold invaded Xcel on Thursday night, more than two hours before the Wolverines' quarterfinal match against Delano.
Thursday night, the Wolverines swept Delano to move to 31-0 and into the semifinals on Friday.
The Rev. Don Wagner of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Wadena left his deer hunting stand empty Thursday morning and drove to the Twin Cities in support of the team.
"They have been a ray of hope, a light amid some darkness," said Wagner, who is on Wadena's long-term recovery committee. "It allows us to take a breather and put the focus on something else for a while rather than bringing to mind the tornado all the time. It's a positive distraction. This is something everyone can cheer about."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.