By Mike Miazga Trivia question: Which came first, the Northern Lights girls’ junior national qualifier or the Northern Lights Juniors club itself? If you chose the qualifier, you would be incorrect.
That’s one of many interesting nuggets that has contributed to the long-term success of Northern Lights Juniors, which through a combination of top-flight coaching, a family-first atmosphere and a visionary leader, has positioned itself as not only the top girls’ club in the state of Minnesota, but in the country as well. First, how this thing got started:
Northern Lights’ origins trace back to the late 1970s when it was operated as a single team by sport coaching veterans and advocates Walt Weaver and Glen Lietzke (now at Austin Juniors in Texas) through the local USVBA region (North Country). The team was named after the region (North Country Juniors) and starting out only had senior-age girls’ on the roster. When Lietzke left, Curt Glesmann (see sidebar story for more on Glesmann) took over the club in the early 1980s (later renaming it Northern Lights after breaking away from the region) and has progressively built it into the success it is today.
In 2016, Northern Lights features 32 girls’ teams with more than 315 players and nearly 70 coaches. Between the club and camps, Glesmann estimates Lights provides playing opportunities to some 4-5,000 kids a year. The power league it runs alone features 200-some teams. “Our coaching staff is a huge part of it,” Glesmann says. “We’ve had a fairly stable coaching staff over the years. Turnover is probably 6-8 a year out of around 70 coaches. That’s pretty good. We have a high level of experience in the building.” Northern Lights 16-2s coach Andy Guggisberg, in his second stint at the Burnsville, Minn.-based club after working at TCA in Southern California and Sports Performance in suburban Chicago, makes it a point to take perspective players and their parents to one particular room in the Lights’ facility. “I point at the table in the coaches room,” says Guggisberg, who also is the club’s camp and recruiting coordinator. “That’s the most valuable space in the gym. That is where a lot of great ideas are hatched. We are deep with talented coaches.” And equally impressive is the fact former players are eager to return to the club in coaching capacities.
For example, Jordan Hinkle played at Northern Lights from 2008-2010 and went on to compete at Wichita State. Now a law student at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Hinkle coaches in the Lights’ 16s age group after coaching 17s last year. Her sister, Mari, is a player on the 15-1s team. “I always felt Northern Lights was a special place,” she says. “I felt like I had to come back and coach. It’s a unique atmosphere and culture. You work your butt off but at the end of the day the coaches do a great job of helping the girls love volleyball. For an elite club, that sometimes can be unique.” Hinkle and others frequently use the term “family atmosphere” when talking about the club. “I still see girls I played with 16s year coming around,” she says. “You make so many special memories here between your teammates and coaches. We have a reputation here for really caring about what we do. I’m still attached to the club because of the time I had as a player. It paved the way for me to develop into the person I am. Because of that I feel like I owe it to the program to give back. I couldn’t imagine coaching anywhere else.” Guggisberg recalls in recent times where a couple families on a team were working through some tough situations.
“The rest of the team took care of their girls and helped any way they could,” he says. “One of the moms said to me, ‘This isn’t a club, this is a family.’ From 18-1s to 11-2s we want everybody to be successful.”
Taylor Voss played at Lights for six years and is in her first year back coaching 17s after playing at Columbia University in New York. She now works in the marketing department at General Mills in the Twin Cities area. “They made what we were doing more of an experience,” she says. “Yes, we were there to play volleyball and do well, but it was more about having fun and bonding with your teammates. Curt and Adam (fellow club director Beamer) do a great job of making sure the girls here have fun and have a good experience. The girls come first and that’s a big reason they have established themselves as the top club in the state.” Haley Kauth is in her final year playing at Lights. She’s on the 18-2s team and is going to play at Wayne State in Nebraska. Family also is top of mind when she talks about the club. “The girls I played with there became family,” she says. “I know I have five or six teammates who I will be with as life-long friends. They are my best friends and we never even went to the same high school. Just seeing them three days a week and at tournaments was enough. It’s my second family.” Hannah Angeli, who has played for the club for six years and is headed to Nebraska-Omaha next season, has the best of both worlds. “I wanted to play at the best level with the best players against the best clubs in the nation, that’s why I picked this one,” she says. “And I’ve been able to meet a bunch of different girls and coaches. It’s such a wide variety of people—it keeps it fun and interesting.”
Another large part of the Northern Lights success story has to do with its back-office best practices. For starters there is the evolution of the team’s facility. The original building that housed Northern Lights was constructed in the early 1990s and featured six courts.
“It was the premier facility at the time. It was top of the line,” Glesmann says. But as the club continued to grow, space began to shrink.
“I was coming back one day in 2005 and the parking lot was packed. There was no place to park. The facility was bursting at the seams,” Glesmann says. “Concession lines were out the door. I said, ‘That’s it.’” So in 2006 Glesmann spearheaded the building of the current Midwest Volleyball Warehouse (more on that name in a second) in Burnsville that is twice the size of the former space and now features 80,000 sq. ft. of space on the south side of Minneapolis. “It’s probably the top facility in the nation, I would suspect,” he says. “It has eight courts and people are able to get a good view. It’s a great practice facility.” And a safe one as well. Glesmann notes the courts at the facility feature special under-padding to help reduce wear-and-tear on athletes’ knees, feet, etc. The courts are set on top of plywood with rubber bumpers, creating a suspended floor of sorts. “There are 50 rubber bumpers on the bottom of it and it has two sheets of plywood on top of that and there is a little layer of rubber mat,” he says. “It’s a 2-inch buildup. It’s very forgiving and very soft. It’s something we had to do. You have girls starting when they are 12 and 13 and playing through 18s, that’s a long time. We needed to have that protection for them.” Glesmann says he got the idea for the padded courts from Sports Performance.
What’s more, the building’s main occupant—Midwest Volleyball Warehouse, a volleyball apparel and equipment catalog service that he purchased from Weaver and Lietzke (who kept the camps component of the business). The Northern Lights club is a tenant in the building. “Midwest Volleyball Warehouse has been in existence since the 1970s,” Glesmann says. “I got involved in the early 1980s and bought it around 1988 or 1989.” How much has the supplier grown in recent times? “We ship in a day what we shipped in a year back then,” Glesmann says. “It’s grown substantially. We’re the largest supplier to schools and clubs across the nation. I used to know every order that came through the company. I either packed it or invoiced it. There is no chance of that happening now. We have 18 people working here. You could order something now and I’d never know it happened.” And now back to that trivia question. The Glesmann-run Northern Lights junior national qualifier, which now calls the Minneapolis Convention Center home, traces its roots back to Chicago. “I was helping out with it a couple times and it was not doing well. There were a lot of problems with facilities,” Glesmann explains. “When I took it over it wasn’t big, like 12-16 courts. I moved it to Minneapolis in the mid-90s. We went to a small field house/sports center on the north side of town with 12 courts. It took a day-and-a-half to tear it down—a monumental task (he says with a laugh).” The qualifier continued to grow to the point Glesmann moved into the convention center around 2000. “It’s amazing now. We’ll have 84 courts set and we’ll have them torn down in crates and ready to be loaded on trucks in an hour and 20 minutes,” he says. “At (Colorado) Crossroads (one of four major tournaments to which Glesmann lends his expertise) we will take down 100 courts in two hours.” Glesmann owns 64 courts—a business move he notes has paid major dividends over the years.
“It makes a difference,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about where the courts are coming from. You have complete control and you know they are going to be kept in good shape.”
Glesmann is not shy in talking about the business side of the sport. “We run the club as a business,” he says. “Clubs are businesses. Parents like that. They like to know exactly what is going on when and where. They don’t like surprises. They like things very organized.” Which is why players such as Natalie Haben, now in her 10th and final year in the club, are attracted to it. “My sister already was playing there,” she says. “I had always heard that it was one of the best places in Minnesota. I still think it’s the best club in Minnesota. You get great training and they give you great opportunities.” Haben is headed to the Big Ten Conference this coming season to play at Purdue, a key adolescent life-changing moment that the Northern Lights staff had a hand in helping her with. “They work very hard on your behalf with recruiting and that’s something I really appreciated,” she says. Haben adds yjsy every player in the club, regardless of skill level, is given the opportunity to succeed.
“They do a great job of integrating everybody. They care about you. You receive very personal attention. The players in the older age groups make an effort to connect with the younger age groups and build relationships. They know everybody by name. They have well-qualified and very down-to-earth people who are relatable to you. They work hard to build your skills and give you good, honest reviews of your work. That’s something you don’t always see and it’s something that has helped me a lot. It’s a unique place.”
Northern Lights Juniors by the numbers Number of players in the club: 316 Number of teams: 32 (all girls) Number of coaches: Around 70 Number of club national titles/medals: 23 national championships (AAU and USA Volleyball) and somewhere around 100 other national medals (seconds and third). About 180 players over the years have earned AAU All-American or USAV all-tournament honors. Number of players who have gone on to play in college: In the 25-plus-year history of the club, about 700 with founder and director Curt Glesmann guessing about 20% going on to play at Division I schools and 30% Division II. Notable alums
Wiz Bachman (Olympian, former UCLA standout) Janet Cobbs (Olympian; from the club’s early years as North Country Juniors)
Molly Kreklow (national team) Tori Dixon (national team) Lauren Gibbemeyer (national team)