Anna Holen and Jackie Meiklejohn helped to end Jordan Thomas' high school volleyball career.

A Pingree-Buchanan senior in the fall of 2015, Thomas and the Class B Medina/Pingree-Buchanan Thunder were bounced from the Region 3 tournament semifinals in Napoleon by Holen, Meiklejohn and the LaMoure/Litchville-Marion Loboes in a crushing fifth set, 15-12.

Thomas, an outside hitter, was later named Region 3's senior athlete of the year, while the Loboes went on to win three consecutive Class B state championships between 2015-17 with the all-state hitting/setting battery of Holen and Meiklejohn leading the way.

"I remember that game so vividly," Thomas said. "Aah! I wanted to beat them so bad!

"Now, I'm super happy they're my teammates."

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The University of Jamestown and head women's volleyball coach Jon Hegerle have tapped into a vein of local, rural talent that is translating collegiately. Thomas is one of six North Dakota Class B athletes on Hegerle's varsity roster who have helped the Jimmies win a program-record 29 matches while setting a new high-water mark in national ranking (No. 8) heading into next week's national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.

Five of said six athletes are products of Region 3, where talent and rivalries have recently run deep. UJ's Holen and Meiklejohn also defeated current teammate Taylor Sabinash's MPB Thunder in the 2017 region title match held in Hazelton, while UJ senior right-side hitter Isabel Wedell was forced to deal with all four -- Thomas, Sabinash, Holen and Meiklejohn -- as a senior at Ellendale High School in the fall of 2015.

How are UJ practices not war?

"I think, first and foremost, they just had a ton of respect for each other," said Hegerle. "They played against each other in volleyball, they played against each other in basketball ... and I think with the way social media is they're pretty connected. You combine that respect with all of a sudden being on the same team and they have a lot of trust in each other."

More Region 3 recruits are on the way, as UJ announced the signing of Medina senior Megan Moser and LaMoure senior Ellie Holen -- Anna's younger sister -- last week. But while it's one thing to recruit local, having it produce nationally is another.

University of Jamestown's Anna Holen returns a serve from Hastings College on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Harold Newman Arena. Looking on is Jordan Thomas. John M. Steiner / The Sun
University of Jamestown's Anna Holen returns a serve from Hastings College on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Harold Newman Arena. Looking on is Jordan Thomas. John M. Steiner / The Sun

The Jimmies open the 2019 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Women's Volleyball Championship on Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Tyson Events Center facing Xavier (Louisiana) in pool play at 1 p.m. It's the fourth consecutive trip to nationals for the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament champion Jimmies and UJ's first as the top-ranked team in its pool.

'A very good judge of talent'

Langdon Area/Edmore/Munich girls volleyball coach Rich Olson is not surprised. Olson's Cardinals just earned the program's fourth Class B state title last weekend at the Fargodome, defeating the Region 3 Oakes Tornadoes 3-1.

Olson has been coaching the Cardinals for 24 years, and a former defensive specialist of his -- junior libero Sydney Ellingson -- is Hegerle's sixth Class B athlete rostered. Ellingson's team-leading 553 digs ranked third in the GPAC this season.

"As much as any coach that I can remember, Jon Hegerle has been instrumental in teaching the sport of volleyball and developing the sport of volleyball in this state," Olson said. "We go down to his team camps as much as we can."

A former Minnesota high school coach, Hegerle is in his 11th season heading up the Jimmies. He's directed and coached camps as a member of the Midwest Volleyball Instructors staff, while also directing the Jamestown Juniors program and the University of Jamestown summer camps.

His tireless work devoted to area volleyball, outside of racking up 266 career wins with the Jimmies and counting, has helped establish meaningful relationships with athletes well before they commit to any college program. Wedell, who is one of Hegerle's most trusted hitters in the clutch with 270 kills this season, immediately turned to that fact when asked of UJ's team chemistry and success.

"I honestly think it's because a lot of us come to Jimmie camp and see Jon," Wedell said. "He helps us out throughout the (high school) years and that makes us a lot better. But, yeah, it's really cool that all the small-town girls can play at a level like this."

Olson took it a step further.

"He's a very good judge of talent," Olson said of Hegerle. "He sees kids that have potential and a lot of the time they have to wait their turn in his program.

"I know Sydney's playing for him right now and she played one year of JV before she got onto the varsity court."

University of Jamestown's Sydney Ellingson (3) celebrates a point scored with teammates Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during GPAC tournament semifinal action against Concordia (Neb.) at Harold Newman Arena. UJ defeated the Bulldogs 3-2. John M. Steiner / The Sun
University of Jamestown's Sydney Ellingson (3) celebrates a point scored with teammates Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during GPAC tournament semifinal action against Concordia (Neb.) at Harold Newman Arena. UJ defeated the Bulldogs 3-2. John M. Steiner / The Sun

Former LaMoure/Litchville-Marion girls volleyball coach Laurie Good, who led LLM to its three state titles before retiring last May, has been a key player in the state's development of rural all-state talent and is also thrilled to see her former athletes sharing success at the college level.

"It's like watching my own kids," Good explained. "I have so much joy inside for how things are going for them, it's just unbelievable."

A 25-year girls volleyball official prior to coaching, Good can attest to the advancement of Class B since Beulah claimed the state's first title in the sport 30 years ago in 1989.

"I think Class B has changed immensely over the years, being more involved with the spring program and offseason training that has given us a different level of competition edge," Good added. "It's nice to see that we're at that level and we can compete with the Class A kids now.

"I'm excited to watch Jamestown. I'm hoping they make (next weekend) and I'm going to make a trip down to Iowa, I think."

University of Jamestown women's volleyball coach Jon Hegerle, left, and assistant coach Jake Fulsom direct the Jimmies against Briar Cliff University at Harold Newman Arena on Sept. 21, 2019. Michael Savaloja / The Sun
University of Jamestown women's volleyball coach Jon Hegerle, left, and assistant coach Jake Fulsom direct the Jimmies against Briar Cliff University at Harold Newman Arena on Sept. 21, 2019. Michael Savaloja / The Sun

Small towns, big dreams

Thomas said rural life prepared her well for college team life, which makes sense. Team chemistry, after all, is largely developed via the isolation provided by practices, bus rides and the walls of locker rooms.

Thomas' home town of Pingree, located just 20 miles north of Jamestown, had a population of 60 at the 2010 census. Meiklejohn and Sabinash hail from nearby Dickey (pop. 42) and Kensal (pop. 163), respectively.

To help put those numbers into perspective, Xavier University of Louisiana -- UJ's opening pool play opponent -- is located in New Orleans (pop. 391,006). On Wednesday, the Jimmies will play Westmont College out of Santa Barbara, California.

"I think it just kinda prepares you for the tight-knit relationships you have on the team," Thomas said of her hometown. "Honestly, we didn't expect any of this. At the beginning of the season, our goal was just to play volleyball. We worked hard every day at practice, we did what we had to do and you trust the process."

Hegerle said one of the first things he'll usually notice out of a small-town North Dakota athlete is her willingness to work, something that must fuel the coach's willingness to commit to untapped potential. Sabinash, a 6-foot-1 middle, also spent a year on UJ's JV before being elevated to varsity this season, where she's piled up 158 kills (.273 hitting).

"A great thing about North Dakota, and certainly Class B, is they're just blue-collar kids," Hegerle said. "They know how to work and they understand what it means to be part of something bigger than themselves.

"They're humble, yet strong. Fiery," the coach added. "They have a lot of passion. They care about each other and love each other a lot."

University of Jamestown's Jackie Meiklejohn (13) sets the ball for either Corina Ruud (10) or Isabel Wedell against Valley City State on Oct. 9, 2019. UJ swept the Vikings 3-0. John M. Steiner / The Sun
University of Jamestown's Jackie Meiklejohn (13) sets the ball for either Corina Ruud (10) or Isabel Wedell against Valley City State on Oct. 9, 2019. UJ swept the Vikings 3-0. John M. Steiner / The Sun

The Jimmies (29-4) haven't lost a match since falling to No. 2-ranked Northwestern (Iowa) at home on Oct. 21. No stranger on what to expect next week, Wedell believes the Jimmies should perform well.

UJ lost a single-set tiebreaker last season to Viterbo (Wisconsin) in Sioux City, ending Jamestown's national tournament at the conclusion of pool play. The Jimmies advanced to the 16-team elimination bracket in 2017.

"I think we're a little bit more excited coming in because we're the No. 1 seed (in Pool H)," Wedell said. "We don't need to play out of our minds or anything. If we just play consistently, I think it will go really well for us."

Wedell, Thomas, and seniors Britta Knudson and Miranda Lowman, will all be playing their final matches for UJ.

"Britta, she always brings it up and, it's like, I don't wanna think about that quite yet," Thomas laughed. "Volleyball has played such a big part in all of our lives, I can't even imagine life without it."

But before it's over, Wedell and Thomas plan to make their Class B roots proud one more time.

"It's like, OK, it's the last time," Wedell said. "So we really wanna leave an impact and not regret anything."

NAIA Women's Volleyball Championship

At Tyson Events Center

Sioux City, Iowa

Pool Play (Pool H)

Dec. 3

(8) University of Jamestown (29-4) vs. (RV) Xavier, Louisiana (31-6), 1 p.m.

(9) Columbia, Missouri (27-5) vs. (RV) Westmont, California (26-6), 3 p.m.

Dec. 4

Westmont vs. Jamestown, 2 p.m.

Xavier vs. Columba, 4 p.m.

Dec. 5

Westmont vs. Xavier, 2 p.m.

Jamestown vs. Columbia, 4 p.m.