Volleyball: Lakers sweep Apollo in 8-3A quarterfinal, Ava Jones breaks school record for assists
Detroit Lakes' Ava Jones was honored by head coach Lynnsey Machakaire and her teammates before the first serve of the Section 8-3A quarterfinal on Thursday. She owns the school record for assists despite missing her sophomore year with a season-ending hamstring injury. The junior setter is committed to play volleyball at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and helped lead the top-seeded Lakers to a first-round sweep over the Eagles.
DETROIT LAKES – It was a no-sweat kind of night for the Detroit Lakes volleyball team in the first round of the Section 8-3A tournament.
The top-seeded Lakers handled their business with its second sweep over eighth-seeded St. Could Apollo in as many weeks. Victories of 25-12, 25-11 and 25-14 posed a light challenge in the quarterfinals, setting up a semifinal match against the reigning 8-2A champions.
“I think our net play was a step up from what it’s been, but we’re going to need to improve that,” Detroit Lakes head coach Lynnsey Machakaire said. “We’re going to face better blocking against Sauk Rapids-Rice. We’re going to have to be ready to hit around a big block. They have a big outside hitter on the right, and that will be the biggest thing we need to prepare for.”
Grace Gunderson led the way with 15 kills, while Helena Daggett collected four blocks. Maddy Bellanger had a team-high four aces.
The Lakers came into the first round with the goal of holding the Eagles to less than 15 points in each set.
“It’s really good for us,” junior setter Ava Jones said. “We worked a lot on defense this week in practice. To see that come into play and have us execute well is really nice.”
Jones felt fortunate to get a crack at St. Cloud Apollo a week earlier in the final home game of the regular season.
“It was nice to play against them last week,” she said. “We stayed focused and kept our minds on the game. We didn’t overlook them. It was nice to know their tendencies and know what they like to do after playing them last week.”
Sauk-Rapids Rice is the latest Section 8-3A team to make it to the state tournament. The Storm finished with a record of 13-18 a year ago but beat top-seeded Alexandria in the section title game.
The Lakers did not play against the fourth seed in the regular season but got a test in the form of Pequot Lakes in their final game before sections. The Patriots knocked off Detroit Lakes 2-0 in the championship game of the Fergus Falls tournament.
“Going against Pequot one more time gave us some confidence,” Machakaire said. ‘We played them a little better than we did the first time. It was very telling that we needed to play as a team and play with better communication. Everyone needed to be positive with each other. The girls saw that and called each other out on that needing to happen. It made a difference. I think they came away from that game saying, ‘We got this.’”
The Storm swept fifth-seeded St. Cloud Tech on Thursday night, and will make the trip to Detroit Lakes on Tuesday for a spot in the 8-3A title game on Nov. 5.
“In volleyball, anybody can have a great game,” Jones said. “It’s really about staying focused, honing in on our fundamentals and believing in ourselves.”
All about Ava
Before the Lakers’ starting lineup was belted through the speakers at Lakeshirts Fieldhouse, Machakaire took the microphone. She walked onto the floor with a poster-board sign and a balloon for her junior setter. She announced to the crowd that Jones owns the school record for assists at 1,364.
“It was a really cool surprise by my teammates and coaches,” Jones said. “It was super heartwarming. I couldn’t have gotten any of that without my teammates and coaches. I’m super thankful for them.”
Jones added 31 more on Thursday, bringing her career total to 1,395. Not only is she the all-time leader in Laker history, she did it after missing nearly the entirety of her sophomore season.
“I think I played two games before I got injured,” Jones said. “It was hamstring tendinitis, so I couldn’t sit. It happened over time. That was the frustrating part because we didn’t know how it happened. It just kind of came on all of a sudden, and I was done.”
Jones was called up to the varsity roster when she was in middle school. Machakaire dubbed her the Lakers’ setter for the next five years, knowing she’d take charge of the floor.
“I brought her up as an eighth-grader in my first year as coach,” Machakaire said. “That was a big decision. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ I think I did with this one. Not only is she our career assists leader, but she’s just a leader all around. She’s just got so many roles she can play for this team. She’s a competitor and a fighter, and that’s what we need.”
When Jones was ruled out for the season, Machakaire pivoted to other members of the team. However, moving players in and out of unfavorable positions posed challenges for the Lakers, who finished the 2021 season 10-17.
“She was drastically missed,” Machakaire said. “We didn’t find that chemistry that we missed without her until we played Alexandria in sections. Kiah Gloege is a phenomenal player, and has played such an important role. But when Ava went out, she had to step into a role that wasn’t best for her. Now that Ava is back, we get to put Kiah in a role that better suits her, and I think she feels better about it too.”
Missing last season gave Jones a new perspective.
“It was super hard,” she said. “I just wanted to be out there with my team and stuff. We had a really good group of girls last year too. It was hard, but just knowing that I get a chance to play with them this year is special for me. I’m so thankful to be back. It gave me a new appreciation for playing the sport I love every day.”
Jones has soaked in every minute on the court this season, and there are a lot of them. She’s played every point, helping the Lakers to a 19-4 record. Jones has stayed healthy in large part due to the system Machakaire has in place.
“We’ve really shifted our defense to keep balls away from her,” Machakaire said. “It’s just something we do to keep her healthy because that’s how important she is to this team. She doesn’t have to take that first ball. She’s a great defender, but she’s better for us to set up that first play.”
In September, Jones committed to play volleyball at the University of Minnesota-Duluth starting in 2024. From suffering a season-ending injury to making a college commitment, Jones said this journey has been a blessing so far.
“I chose Duluth because they have a really competitive program,” she said. “I love the coaches, and the city is beautiful. It’s the right amount of distance away from home. I looked at a few other D-II schools and some in the Summit League. I just think Duluth is the right fit for me.”
Machakaire has two players committed to playing at the collegiate level. Jones joins outside hitter Jalynn Gunderson, who inked a commitment to the University of New Orleans next fall.
While it isn’t the flashiest position, Machakaire doesn’t underestimate the need for an elite setter.
“It’s the most valuable player on the team,” she said. “If you can have a good setter on your team, you can do a lot of different things. Without her, we don’t have that offense to set up. We have other kids that can come in and fill that role, but to have someone as talented at being a setter as Ava is just incredible. Every game we walk away from, a coach comes up to me and says they wish they had a setter like ours. I can’t even explain how valuable it is to have someone call offensive plays and run a college-like offense for this team.”
Statistics aside, Machakaire feels grateful to see Jones doing what she loves.
“She’s a phenomenal kid, and she completely understands the game,” Machakaire said. “She sees the court so well. She can put a really nice set out there, but she’s also picking kids to set for, and we get kills out of it. She’s setting the right places because she’s so smart. We are really blessed to have Ava.”
DETROIT LAKES 3, ST. CLOUD APOLLO 0
25-12, 25-11, 25-14
KILLS- Jalynn Gunderson 7, Grace Gunderson 15, Rylee Johnson 6; ACES- Maddy Bellanger 4, Sadie Stroeing 3, Ava Jones 2; Blocks- Helena Daggett 4, Johnson 5, Stroeing 2; Digs- Olivia Clark Burnette 6, Bellanger 4, J. Gunderson 9, Jones 8, G. Gunderson 4; ASSISTS- Jones 31