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Volleyballers shine at nationals

The Minnesota North U16 girls volleyball team, which includes four local players, recently completed an incredible run to a fifth-place finish at the National AAU U16 volleyball tournament in Orlando.

The Minnesota North Navy squad consists of 11 players from around the state, including three from Cloquet and one from Esko.

"Mainly, our players are from around the Duluth area," said head coach Bianca Dufour. "We played in 14 tournaments over the course of a nine-month season, so the girls certainly put in a lot of time, effort and work to get better."

Local players are Quinn Danielson, Blythe Proulx and Ava Carlson from Cloquet, and Esko's Kyra Johnson.

"I think a big key to finishing as well as we did is because of the sheer fact that the girls are all good friends," Dufour said. "Of course they are all talented athletes as well, and that doesn't hurt either."

Approximately 200 teams participated in the national tournament, with the Minnesota North squad participating in pool play before eventually moving on to tournament play and finishing the tournament with an 11-1 record.

"I think for the girls who are local getting to have exposure to teams that come from much larger cities and areas and who have a higher number of kids to draw from, is a good thing," Dufour said. "Playing against higher levels of competition only is going to make them better."

In the opening game of the tournament, Minnesota North notched a 25-5, 25-12 win over IVC Texas. The second game saw North down a team from Florida, followed by wins over teams from Illinois, California, Georgia, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Louisiana and Indiana.

Minnesota North eventually bowed out against 1st Alliance of Illinois, which eventually won the tournament.

"I wasn't worried going into the tournament about the concentration level, because these girls have played a lot of volleyball over the last nine months," Dufour said. "They are a very talented group and I knew they'd do well."

The big question was just how well would they do against the top competition in the country, she said. As it turns out, they were more than ready.

"We had seen many of these teams prior to the tournament," Dufour said. "We've seen some of the teams and we played against some of them, so we knew we could play with them."

In the end, the team from northern Minnesota more than showed they could compete against the best in the rest of the country.

"I am not surprised at all with how they did," Dufour said. "We have a lot of natural athletes who love to play volleyball with each other, and it showed over the four days we were in Orlando."