Amid the thousands upon thousands of moments that constitute a high school sports season, it is easy to miss one of the special ones.
Not the 85-yard touchdown run or the breakaway dunk, the record-setting swim or the last point of a state tennis title: the quieter moments where a bit of real life peeks in and reminds you that sports can be real and affecting and life-affirming without a single highlight-reel play.
There was such a moment on Sept. 4, when Litchfield hosted Maple Lake for a high-stakes volleyball match.
Maple Lake entered the contest as the No. 4 team in Class AA and had yet to lose a match. Litchfield had something to prove and did so through the first three sets, losing a hotly contested opening set 25-23 and winning a roller-coaster third set.
As the fourth set progressed, and the Dragons trailed 2-1, Litchfield was hanging tough and looked poised to push the Irish to the limit — and possibly a fifth and decisive set.
With the Dragons trailing 16-14, Maple Lake set up an attack on their left side, and the Irish outside hitter spiked a ball that tipped off the outstretched hands of junior Macy Huhner.
But both the down official and the up official, Kathy Kalenberg, signaled a point for the Dragons as Maple Lake head coach Marty Kiebel protested from the sideline, hoping an official or line judge would change the call.
(Kalenberg wrote a letter to Litch activities director Justin Brown about the ensuing incident. To read Kalenberg’s letter, turn to “LHS students show what really matters” on B3.)
Before Kiebel had even finished protesting, however, Huhner and senior Hannah Banks had already signaled to head coach Darin Swenson and the officials that they had made contact with the ball.
Junior Brynne Wahl, the floor captain, was summoned to speak with Kalenberg, and, as Kalenberg puts it, “she confirmed that they wanted me to change the call.”
Initially, Kalenberg wasn’t sure she understood what Wahl was saying.
“At first she didn’t realize what we were doing,” Wahl said. “And she called me up there and I explained that we had got a touch on it.”
Even from the stands, it was a profound moment.
An entire team, instinctively and without a moment’s thought, trying to reverse a call that had gone in their favor during a tense, important match against an unbeaten, state-ranked team.
As Kalenberg nodded and signaled the changed call, giving Maple Lake a 17-14 lead — rather than the one-point Litch deficit if the call had stood — Kiebel tipped an imaginary cap to Swenson and his players and, as you could see clearly from the stands, said “Wow” with an awestruck look on his face.
The Dragons went on to lose the match, 3-1, but the energy in the gym had shifted: Yes, each of these two teams was working strenuously to beat its opponent.
But the Litchfield girls had shown that there was room within that fierce competition for a little humanity.
‘Do the right thing’
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Dragons girls reacted how they did. Coach Swenson and his team have always prided themselves on playing a good, clean game.
“We jokingly call ourselves the award winners for the most honest team in Minnesota,” Swenson said. “It’s just kind of a thing that we have fun with.”
“He always likes to say that we want to be one of the most honest teams out there,” Huhner said. “We strive to be honest no matter what.”
In that moment, Swenson couldn’t have been more proud of his team, the coach said.
“I was standing there and I started getting a little emotional just thinking about what had just happened,” he said. “That moment kind of got to me a little bit.”
After the match had ended, Swenson and his team gathered to talk about the game, and once again he was overwhelmed by what his team had shown.
“I got emotional again, simply because you put all the factors together — Maple Lake is one of those rivals teams, and we haven’t beat them in a number of years and they’re a quality program, we were playing well and had an opportunity,” Swenson said. “And that took seconds to show their character and do the right thing.”
As a spectator, it was the nonchalance, the utter lack of showiness, that got me: these were kids simply doing what they knew was right and not expecting a pat on the back — or a sports column written about them, for that matter.
“It wasn’t one of those things that they were going to acknowledge, or bring it to anyone’s attention,” Swenson said. “… They just immediately made the right call and didn’t think anything of it.”
After the fact, Huhner and Wahl were both proud that, despite the loss, the Dragon girls could say they played the game with integrity.
“When you’re playing a team like that, of course you want to do the best you can,” Huhner said. “But when it comes down to it, honesty probably is the best policy.”
Wahl, speaking of the moment after the dust had settled, summed up what made Sept. 4 a special match — and this group of girls a special bunch worth cheering for.
“I don’t think we would want to win knowing it wasn’t really right,” she said.