Huskies, Bengals head to Eagle Invitational volleyball tournament

This weekend, Blaine and Andover wade into the toughest regular-season high school volleyball tournament in the state.

They will play in the Eagle Invitational beginning Friday at Apple Valley High School. The tournament, in its 35th year, routinely attracts many of the highest-ranked teams in Minnesota. Blaine is the defending champion, while Andover is playing in the event for the first time.

Blaine, which won its first five matches and currently is ranked second in Class 3A, defeated four opponents at the 2011 Eagle Invitational and didn’t drop a set in the process. The Bengals went on to play in the state tournament.

“Celeste Gorman (Blaine head coach) has another outstanding team this year,” said Jeff Groves, an Apple Valley High School assistant coach who organizes the tournament.

Andover was 5-5 in its first 10 matches this season, but one of the losses was against Blaine and three others came during the rugged Southwest Minnesota Challenge in Marshall. The Huskies have been to the state tournament each of the last five years and seven times overall.

“Connie Huberty (Andover coach) has built quite a program up there in a short time,” Groves said. “They’re a perennial power now.”

The 15-team field includes the No. 1-ranked team in each of the state’s three enrollment classes – Lakeville North in 3A, Marshall in 2A and Bethlehem Academy in 1A. Six of the top eight teams in the Class 3A rankings will play in this weekend’s tournament.

In 33 of the last 34 years, the state large-school champion played in the Eagle Invitational the same year. It doesn’t necessarily mean that team won the Eagle Invitational that year.

“I think the team that went in as the favorite has lost more often than it’s won,” said Walt Weaver, who helped found the tournament in the 1970s when he was Apple Valley’s coach. Weaver retired from high school coaching in 2006 but returned this season to take over Lakeville North’s program.

Volleyball tournaments are taking place somewhere in Minnesota almost every weekend of the high school regular season. As the sport has grown, more tournaments have started, but the Eagle Invitational still draws premier fields.

“We’re lucky,” Groves said. “The sport continues to grow. The demand is there. And the coaches are very supportive. They’re looking for tournaments that will give their teams good competition.”

Blaine opens defense of its Eagle Invitational championship against Bemidji at 5 p.m. today (Friday). Andover plays defending state Class 3A champion Eden Prairie at 6:15 p.m. Each team will play two matches today.

The tournament continues Saturday, with the championship game scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

Apply Valley High School is located at 14450 Hayes Road, Apple Valley.

Mike Shaughnessy is at [email protected]