WEST FARGO — Members of the West Fargo Sheyenne volleyball team were setting up the nets for the Mustangs’ final practice before the North Dakota Class A state volleyball tournament.
For the seven seniors on Sheyenne’s roster, Wednesday would be their last practice in the school’s gym. For head coach Leah Newton, it was the last time she’d coach her daughter, McKenzie, during practice.
With state one day away, the Mustangs (23-5) were preparing for their second straight appearance in the state tournament. The second seed from the East, Sheyenne faces West No. 3 Bismarck High (21-7) in the opening round at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fargodome.
The Mustangs made it to state last year for the first time in school history, and earning a spot at state this fall was the team’s goal all season, McKenzie Newton said.
The looming competition will also be the final time McKenzie, who has recorded 880 assists and 32 services aces her senior year, will refer to her mother as “coach” instead of “mom.” Leah Newton, in her seventh year as Mustangs head coach, coached her daughter’s club volleyball team in sixth grade — and the journey has come full circle.
“I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. I've enjoyed it,” Leah said. “It's been a lot of fun. I've been able to share a lot of things that maybe other parents don't get to by being in it.”
By now, the mother-daughter duo has gotten used to the dynamic. But it can still be difficult at times.
“There's certainly challenges where we have to remember that we're coach and player and not always mom and daughter,” Leah said. “But she's handled it so well. I'm proud of her. She's really good at communicating.”
McKenzie isn’t new to having a parent who doubles as a head coach. With her dad, Jeremy Newton, as the head coach of Sheyenne’s football team, it has become second nature.
“I've gotten used to it over the years, but we kind of use the other coaches to talk to me a little bit more than her,” McKenzie said. “But I have gotten used to it, and we still talk. It’s been fun.”
Still, it’s sometimes hard to separate the two, McKenzie said.
“At home, sometimes we talk a lot about volleyball. It’s just easy to do that,” McKenzie said.
With graduation a little over six months away, Leah said it was bittersweet thinking about her daughter not being in the lineup next year.
“It's a little bit emotional thinking about it," Leah said. "This is the last time we'll be in the gym practicing together, and then she's not going to be here anymore."
“And while it's exciting that she's going on to different things — I'm very proud of her — it'll be different,” Leah said. “But I really like the game. I like the girls and the relationships I have with the coaches. So it’s still going to be great, but it definitely will be different.”
McKenzie, who has been playing with most of the seniors since she was in sixth grade, said it hadn’t sunk in yet that come next fall, she wouldn’t be suiting up with the girls in her class.
“It's not gonna hit until the very end, but I'm going to go make the most of this last practice,” the 5-foot-11 inch setter said.
Leah coached nearly the entire squad of seniors on Sheyenne’s roster in sixth grade for a spring club season. She’s watched them grow as players and as people over the course of six years, and with state fast-approaching, she said it had gone by “so fast.”
“You could just tell their sixth-grade year that they were a special group; in a lot of ways, not just with volleyball, but with their character,” Leah said. “Just great kids. It's been really fun to see them get to where they are right now. They're just awesome kids.”
Monti Knewtson, a senior right-side hitter who missed her entire junior season to a hip injury, said extending the Mustangs’ season felt extra special this year.
“We've been friends for, it seems like forever,” Knewtson said. “So it's so cool to be able to stay in the sport as long as we have and then to finish it off together.”
And the class of 2020’s bond has also transferred to the court.
“I think we’re all super comfortable with each other, willing to work hard for each other,” Knewtson said. “And I think that's because we've known each other so long and respect each other so much.”
With a six-year span of friendship and being teammates, McKenzie said it felt like the group had accomplished something together.
“It's been a really fun season,” McKenzie said. “I just wanted to make the most of my opportunities because it's my last year with all these guys.”
Journey to state
The team has come a long way. The Mustangs finally ended a long-lasting state tournament drought last fall, earning a fifth-place state finish. Sheyenne had reached the state play-in rounds of the East Region tournament each year prior, only to come up short in all four of the matches.
Leah, who has been at the helm since the young program's inception, said she feels like the Mustangs' skill level continues to be on an upward swing.
This season, Leah has been proud of her middle hitters.
“I think our middles have really come a long way from the last couple of seasons and even throughout this season, and have made their presence known,” she said. “Sometimes, as a middle, you kind of get overlooked a little bit because a lot of that outside game is big, but they've really come along offensively, and we've been able to count on them to not only play defense and block, but be someone that can put the ball away.”
Senior middle/rear hitter Ellie Such, who has tallied 170 kills and 39 blocks this year, is one of those players. Such was named to the All-EDC team, along with teammates McKenzie Newton and Jadyn Feist, a junior who has paced the Mustangs with 323 kills, 314 digs and 47 blocks.
The Mustangs also get help from their back row, which is like a well-oiled machine.
“Our defense, I love our passing game,” Leah said. “We have some really good defensive pieces in our back row that are just go-getters, and that helps make everything go, too.”
Since Knewtson joined the squad as an underclassmen, she said the team has grown a lot.
“People take pride in this program. All the girls take pride in this program. Other sports, all of the teachers and students at our school just respect our team and are proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Knewtson said.
With the state tournament beginning Thursday, Leah said her team was cleaning some things up and making sure they were prepared to execute their style of play.
“Every team at state has earned their way there because they're a great team,” Leah said. “So we're just going to approach it as being competitive and controlling the things we can, which is our effort and attitude and playing our style of ball."
Her team also wants to go have fun.
“I'm ready for it,” McKenzie Newton said. “I think that we're just gonna go in having fun, make some noise and try and see what we can do there.”