Drive one-half hour south on Highway 25 and you'll find a big reason why the Central Lakes College Raiders volleyball program has seen its share of success.
That's where Pierz High School is located.
Since 1995, that stretch of two-lane road has seen a number of Pioneer volleyball players depart for CLC to continue their playing careers.
Players like Nicole Kummet, Amber Thyen, Sheila Gross, Amanda Becker, Becky Poster, Katie Bell, Amanda Meyer, Jessie Fischer and Lexi Palo have traded Pioneer uniforms for the Raiders' red and black.
And, in those nine years, the Raiders have posted a record of 183-80 with two National Junior College Athletic Association Division III championships and one national runner-up finish.
Sophomore Tracy Bell and freshman Jodi Solinger are the most recent Pierz alumni to play at CLC. The two have helped the Raiders to a 9-2 North Division and a 15-7 overall record.
As a senior, Solinger thought about going to CLC to continue her playing career, but decided on a different path.
"I talked about playing at CLC but I went to St. Cloud and Tracy went to CLC," Solinger said. "She told me how much fun it was. I really missed the game so I came back."
The Pierz pipeline to CLC started with the formation of the Heartland Junior Olympic volleyball program. Current Pierz assistant coach Wally Brown and former Brainerd coach Carl Schirmer started the program.
Besides the Heartland program, Raiders head coach Jane Peterson credits Brown with introducing current Pioneers head coach Kurt Stumpf to her.
"Through Wally I met Kurt, who was my assistant coach in 2000," said Peterson. "I have a really good relationship with Kurt. I talk to Kurt once a week. I often call him after they've played a certain team and ask about certain players. He knows what level of volleyball we play here. I really trust Kurt's judgment."
It's that relationship with Stumpf that has made Peterson's job easier. When a Pioneer player comes to CLC, Peterson knows exactly what she's getting.
"I do know I am getting someone that is committed to volleyball," Peterson said. "Somehow those coaches in Pierz have developed players who are committed to the game and are willing to commit to a team."
But Peterson also puts in time at Pierz to build and maintain relationships with players and coaches.
"I helped coach Katie Bell's group on a Heartland team," Peterson said. "I go once a summer and work with Pierz sixth-graders. The kids on the eighth- and ninth-grade teams there know who I am and that helps."
Relationship building is what Peterson believes is most beneficial for players and her program. And, it all starts with the Heartland program.
Players from all over central Minnesota play once a week in the Heartland program, which runs from January to April. Katie Bell, Meyer, Fischer and Dana Dickinson played together on a Heartland team. Those four players were integral parts in winning back-to-back national titles.
"Some of our past teams have been successful because they had relationships with each other before they came (to CLC)," said Peterson. "Jodi knows Tracy from high school. She also knows Abby from playing on the Heartland team.
"Teams are about relationship building. A lot of that relationship building happens before the first day of practice."
* The volleyball team will host the first crossover tournament Thursday at Brainerd High School.
The crossover tournament pits teams from the North and South divisions that don't normally play each other in the regular season. Matches start at 9 a.m.
* The football team (0-1 South Division, 2-4 overall) will have to keep turnovers to a minimum as it travels to Fergus Falls (0-2, 3-3) to face the high-octane aerial attack of the Spartans.
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