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A Leader on and Off the Court

A Leader on and Off the Court

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by Alicia Underlee Nelson
photography by Kim J Photography

Casey Volkmann is a triple threat. The 5-foot-8 senior is a three-sport athlete for the Wadena Deer-Creek Wolverines. She wears number 10 as a point guard on the basketball team, as a fast pitch softball pitcher and as an outside hitter for the school’s close-knit volleyball team.

“I’m really competitive anytime you put me in any game,” says Volkmann. “I play all three during the summer so it gets really busy.” She also coaches summer rec softball and spring Junior Olympics Volleyball. Then there’s playing club volleyball in the winter and getting together with her Wadena–Deer Creek teammates to play volleyball again in the spring.

So what does she do in her down time? What does she do for fun? “I’m usually just playing some more sports,” she replies with a laugh.

When it comes to sports, Volkmann doesn’t really like to play favorites. She just wants to be playing, hitting the weight room and practicing for the next matchup – whatever it may be. But there is one sport that’s closest to her heart. A sport that makes her excited every time she talks about it. It’s a sport she was practically born to play.

“Volleyball is my favorite,” Volkmann mentions. “I just love everything about it. I’ve been playing it since I was literally probably three years old. So I grew up playing volleyball in the gym with my sisters.”

Casey is the youngest member of an esteemed Minnesota volleyball family. She followed older sisters Courtney and Caitlin onto the Wadena-Deer Creek court, suiting up for varsity when she was just a seventh grader. She was mainly a serving specialist during her first year on varsity, but by eighth grade she’d developed into a six-rotation player – an athlete that can attack, pass and play defense equally well.

All three sisters played for a seasoned coach who celebrated her 500th career win in 2016, a woman who built the school’s volleyball program piece by piece over a 30-year career spent entirely within the Wadena-Deer Creek school system. The coach’s name is Sue Volkmann. She also happens to be Casey’s mother.

That might be tricky terrain to navigate for a less confident player, but Casey Volkmann takes it in stride. Her mom has been a coach her entire life and Volkmann grew up courtside, absorbing volleyball both in the gym and at home, learning the fundamentals and leadership skills through practice and by example. Her teammates elected her captain sophomore and junior year. And since the Wolverines didn’t lose any seniors in 2017, she’ll likely play that role again this season.

“Oh, she’s definitely our go-to player, our team player, our leader,” says Coach Volkmann. “She takes the younger players under her wing. She just understands the game so well.”

“I’m kind of natural leader. That’s one of the roles I play,” Casey Volkmann agrees. “I think people look up to me because I’ve been around the sport so much. So it’s good, because I can help teammates and improve with them. They know they can come to me and talk to me. So during games or practices or whatever, if my mom is busy with something they’ll ask me, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ‘What do I need to fix?’”

This role suits her. Volkmann loves digging into the nuances of technique and helping her teammates refine their skills. She watches and analyzes college games, hungry to learn something new.

Her stats are a testament to both her talent and her hard work. Despite playing through a nagging shoulder injury last year (which eventually required both rest for inflamed tendons and physical therapy), Volkmann’s name consistently showed up in the sports pages. She finished her junior year with 540 kills, 484 digs and 69 ace serves.

Sportswriters, coaches and opposing teams aren’t the only ones who have noticed her prowess. Volkmann has been named the Park Region Conference MVP, a four-time All-Conference player and has been named to the 2AA Minnesota All-State First Team. Volkmann is a confident leader both on her home court and across the state. But she doesn’t let it go to her head.

“She is the type of leader on the court that her teammates look up to and trust,” says Christine Sauer, who has coached Volkmann on the Bemidji Black Ice Junior Olympics Volleyball team for two years. “She’s grown up in the volleyball world, but she’s so interested in wanting to know more. She’s coachable. She doesn’t assume she knows everything.”

Volkmann herself has some simple advice for student athletes who want to refine their leadership skills. “I’d say just be confident in what you’re helping your teammates with,” she explains. “You can’t be shy if you’re going to try to be a leader. You just have to put yourself out there. “

Casey Volkmann is friendly and approachable off the volleyball court. But that shifts when the whistle blows. “I’m really passionate,” she says. “I think that’s really obvious when I play.” She loves the rush of scoring – “It’s great to be able to do that for your team” – but enjoys every moment of the game.

“I love playing,” she says. “I love my teammates and we all really love the game, so that makes it easy to play with them.”

The Wadena-Deer Creek volleyball team is close. The team grew up together and developed a bond strengthened by three-hour practices every day after school, team meals (last season’s pre-playoff spaghetti feeds quickly became a tradition), pre-game rituals and a schedule that promoted team development and growth. The entire team is back this fall and they’re thinking big.

“As a team, we want to make it to State for sure,” Volkmann says. “We made it to finals last year.” Wadena-Deer Creek won a nerve-wracking match against Pequot Lakes to claim the South Sub-Section 8AA title last fall. But ended the season as the Section 8AA runner up, falling to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton in a heartbreaker. It still smarts.

But Coach Volkmann is very optimistic about the team’s chances of achieving their goal. “We have everybody back from last year,” she says. “And we were really successful last year. We ended up 22-10.”
For Casey Volkmann and her teammates, the stakes are higher than ever this season. “I think it’s going to be a lot more emotional, honestly,” she says. “Our team is really close. We’re all, like, best friends, so knowing this is going to be our last chance is really emotional.”

She sees this intense bond as a huge asset, one that sets them apart from their competition. “We just need to keep up with our chemistry,” she says. “We aren’t the team that has a lot of really strong or tall players or the most athletic kids. But somehow we end up working it out. We can always make things happen, make the saves, make the plays.”

Wadena-Deer Creek moves from AA to A this year, which means old rivalries with Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, Perham and Park Rapids may fade as new teams are added to the schedule. But the team isn’t worried about that.

They’re studying up, logging lengthy pre-season practice sessions and spending the summer in the weight room as part of a program that Casey’s older sister Courtney – who also serves as Wadena-Deer Creek’s assistant coach – got started. A program that began as a way for the volleyball team to get stronger and train together in the off-season quickly turned into a program the entire student body could take advantage of. Volkmann recommends strength training to any athlete who wants to take their game to the next level. She’s seen the benefits first hand.

“If you want to improve, being strong really helps everything,” Volkmann says. “It just makes control a lot easier. I’m not really into the numbers like, ‘I need to bench this much,’ or ‘I need to squat this much.’ I’m really just looking, week-to-week, to be able to do more than I did previously.”

She’ll take this incremental approach to the court for her last high school season as well. “Personally, I guess I’m always looking to improve all of the aspects of my game,” she said. There’s one goal she’s especially eager to cross off her list. “I’m pretty close to 2,000 kills,” she explained, “And I want to reach that before I graduate.”

That goal is well within reach. Volkmann will start her senior year with 1,600 career kills, 540 of them logged during her junior year. “I’d say it’s very doable,” says Coach Volkmann. “If she has a year like she had last year, she’s gonna come awful close.”
One goal looms even larger than 2,000 career kills and a trip to State – playing volleyball in college. “There are several colleges recruiting her,” explains Sue Volkmann. “She’s hoping to play Division II in the NSIC conference and she’s certainly made that happen for herself.” She plans to study math or accounting, since math is her favorite subject.

Volkmann’s academic record is as impressive as her stats. She enters her senior year with a perfect 4.0 GPA. She’s also a member of the National Honor Society and a five-time recipient of the Minnesota High School League Spotlight on Scholarship award.

The college Casey Volkmann chooses will be lucky to have her. When asked about what she thinks the next years of Volkmann’s volleyball career will hold, Coach Sauer doesn’t miss a beat. “I would expect her to do exactly what she has been doing,” she said. “To continue to be a leader.”