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Chris Murphy, Published November 05 2013

Three Spuds seniors following winding paths to state berth

Moorhead - Moorhead senior setter Amber Gunkel is more than happy with her repeat birthday gift from her mother she’s received every year since she was in first grade. It’s not a pair of socks.

It’s a gift Gunkel would never return: Tickets to the Minnesota state volleyball tournament.

“I just loved volleyball since I was little,” Gunkel said. “I would always go to the home varsity games for Moorhead. I would always watch them play, and it was always a big dream of mine to get up there and play.”

Mom will have to shop for a different gift this year because Gunkel has a free pass to the 2013 tournament. Her 890 assists, 247 digs and 27 service aces are a big reason Moorhead is taking on top-seeded Eagan at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in the first round of the Class 3A tournament.

Every year she’s been in the stands watching. In 2010, when Moorhead last went to state, she was a freshman and the statistician, once again, watching. This season, Gunkel will be the one the crowd is watching.

“I can’t put it into words,” Gunkel said. “It’s the best feeling that I could ever ask for.”

Moorhead senior outside hitter Olivia Ostlie just wanted to play volleyball again when she tore her ACL in January of her sophomore year.

“It was January 12,” Ostlie said. “I went up for a hit and I came down and I heard a pop, and I fell to the ground. Automatically, I knew something was wrong.”

There was no volleyball for six months for Ostlie, but she knew she’d be back.

“There’s was never a doubt,” Ostlie said. “I always knew that I would have to work that much harder to catch up with my teammates. It was a learning experience, because I was like a second coach while I couldn’t play, so I got to see the coach’s perspective.”

Ostlie came back her junior year and now, as a senior, is second on the team in both aces and kills with 32 and 261, respectively, to go along with 211 digs.

“I remember the first time I got back on the court, the feeling of hitting again was the best feeling ever,” Ostlie said. “Everyone says, ‘You’ve come so far. You’ve work so hard,’ but that part of my life is over. Now, it’s about getting ready for state.”

Moorhead pulled a tough draw, getting top-seeded Eagan, which sits at 27-2. The Spuds aren’t worried.

“We beat one of our rivals, and then we ended up beating the No. 1 seed, which was a huge confidence booster for us at sections,” said Moorhead middle hitter Alyssa LaFlamme, who leads the team with 35 service aces and 268 kills. “We’ve been playing as a team. Everybody has a positive attitude. Everybody is fired up for this game. I think we take that as a challenge, and we are definitely ready to give it all we got in that game.”

Moorhead coach Char Lien has more than enough confidence with this group of seniors led by Gunkel, LaFlamme and Ostlie.

“We’ve never had nine seniors before,” Lien said. “They want to win. These last few weeks they have bought into their job. They may not all see the court, but they are making the girls that do see the court better. I said what would you rather do before the season: Play all the time and not get to the big dance, or get to be on a team that gets to go to the state tournament?”

The senior Spuds all stole Gunkel’s birthday present idea and decided to play for the state tournament.

As for Gunkel, her birthday is Saturday – the same day state title matches will be held. She’d be more than happy to celebrate it on the volleyball court.

“That would be how I would celebrate it,” Gunkel said. “That would be my birthday.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548