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Mrs. 600: Sue Volkmann joins exclusive 600-win club in Wadena-Deer Creek's sweep of Bertha-Hewitt

Sue Volkmann took the Deer Creek volleyball head coaching job in 1983. Nearly four decades later she became the 13th head coach in Minnesota high school volleyball history to eclipse the 600-win mark. Her dedication to her players, coaches and community for 39 years was celebrated by fans on Thursday night in the Wolverines' sweep of Bertha-Hewitt.

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Wadena-Deer Creek head volleyball coach Sue Volkmann earned her 600th career win on Sept, 22, 2022 in the Wolverines' 3-0 sweep of Bertha-Hewitt.
Contributed / Doug Dutke
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BERTHA, Minn. – When Sue Volkmann reported for duty after having accepted a physical education teaching position at Deer Creek schools in 1983, she was surprised to learn that the head volleyball coaching duties came with the package. Now, 39 years later, she joined the exclusive 600 wins club.

The Wolverines beat Bertha-Hewitt 3- on Thursday night. Volkmann became the 13th coach in Minnesota high school volleyball history to reach the six century mark.

Volkmann, a standout high school athlete in volleyball, basketball and softball at nearby Wadena High School, had recently graduated from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D. in the 1980’s, where she was a star on the women’s basketball team.

Like many college grads, she was just happy to have scored a job near her hometown.

“I took the teaching offer over the phone,” she said, “and when I showed up, they said, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to be the volleyball coach too.’”

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So, in vintage Sue Volkmann style, she rolled with it, even though she had always imagined herself coaching basketball and softball.

The milestone win came over Park Region Conference foe Bertha-Hewitt in a breezy fashion. In the win, the Wolverines notched their sixth consecutive victory, and eighth overall on the season, in straight sets 25-9, 25-11, 25-18.

The Wolverines improved to 8-3 on the season on a night that featured not only Volkmann’s important career milestone, but also a celebration for sophomore setter Addyson Gravelle, who scored her 1,000th setting assist on a night where she tallied 34 assists and three digs.

While still a bit stunned over her own accomplishment in the win, Gravelle said after the game that the entire team was laser focused on claiming that victory for their beloved coach.

“We really wanted this for her 600th,” Gravelle said.

After the game, Volkmann, the athletes and WDC’s students and fans were all smiles.

Immediately after the Wolverines closed out the third set, WDC fans and students erupted into a frenzy, standing to cheer and hold up printed out signs that simply read “600.”

Then someone from the crowd pulled out a poster board sign that had a gold glittering “600” written on it, and it was pushed into Volkmann’s hands.

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Volkmann, who seemed overwhelmed by the outpouring of admiration, was then mobbed by her players who formed a circle around her, swallowing her up in one big team hug.

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Wadena-Deer creek head coach Sue Volkmann coaches in her 600th career win on Sept. 22, 2022 in a 3-0 sweep of Bertha-Hewitt.
Contributed / Doug Dutke

However, after the team’s photos were complete, she looked over to the stands where the WDC student section was still celebrating all by themselves. That’s when Volkmann waved those students onto the court with the team, and another celebratory mob with coach Volkmann at center took place. Of course, she also took time to pose with all of the student body too.

There was joy all along the WDC side of the gym.

“It’s a lot more fun with all of the kids,” Volkmann said through a wide grin when asked about the post-game celebration. “We just have great kids. No doubt.”

Volkmann was shy about accepting the limelight, and admitted that she’s relieved the milestone is in the rearview mirror.

“Well, I’m glad it’s over,” she said, grinning. “It was a good night.”

In an interview leading up to the potential milestone game, Volkmann emphasized that she believes the team’s success is always more important than any individual’s accomplishments.

“I really don’t think about it. I’m not a big stats person,” she said. “To say (a 600th win) is my milestone is not the reality. It’s because of the team–the whole group. The most important thing is the team. We don’t ever emphasize (individual stats).”

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Volkmann’s impressive coaching resume over the past 30-plus years includes one state championship, five state tournament appearances, five section championships, another six section runner-up finishes and at least 16 conference titles.

Volkmann’s 500th milestone win came in 2016 when WDC defeated Anoka to win the Big Lake Tournament.

In what she calls her most memorable season, Volkmann was named the 2011 Class AA State Volleyball Coach of the Year by the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association and the Section 8AA coach of the year after the Wolverines finished a perfect 33-0 on the way to a state title. That team only lost two sets all season.

The context to that season, however, was that on June 17, 2010, an F4 tornado devastated the town of Wadena and the surrounding region, destroying Volkmann’s own family farm near Bluffton, while leveling the town’s high school. The family was left with only a pickup load of possessions.

The WDC volleyball team ended up playing in the town’s elementary school gymnasium that season, where folding chairs had to be set out for fans because there were no bleachers.

The Wolverines’ subsequent drive to their state championship would become the stuff from which Hollywood movies are made.

In a 2011 article published by the UND athletic media team, Volkmann said that it was the players that made that team special, not the circumstances.

“I don’t think the tornado was a factor in our success. Our number one thing was chemistry,” she was quoted as saying. “We didn’t have any superstars, but rather we had a team that had been together for a number of years. They have played together since they were very young, so that had built some great team chemistry.”

Wadena-Deer Creek Athletic Director Norman Gallant said Volkmann underplays her commitment over the past decades. He said the school’s ongoing success in volleyball is due to the time she spends building the program, which begins with girls as young as third and fourth grade participating in Junior Olympics.

“The volleyball program consistently has the highest participation rate in our school,” Gallant said, “and the product on the floor each year at the varsity level is the result of the commitment coach Volkman has to her program and to the young women at WDC.”

While Volkmann is pretty humble about why her teams have been so consistently competitive for nearly four decades, Gallant is eager to boast on her behalf.

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Wadena-Deer Creek volleyball fans celebrate Sue Volkmann's 600th career win on Sept. 22, 2022 in Bertha.
Devlyn Brooks / Wadena Pioneer Journal

“As a coach and (athletic director), I have always appreciated the way that Sue has her teams prepared,” he said. “She is a master of putting kids in a position to be successful. She is able to recognize student athlete's specific skills, hone them, and utilize them to mold a cohesive team that always improves through the course of a season. She is a master of strategy as well as game management. She knows when to use timeouts and adjust during matches as well as throughout the course of the season.”

Volkmann, who admits she’s among the last of a generation of high school coaches who have been willing to commit a lifetime to coaching, said part of her success is that her family has made volleyball a family affair.

Volkmann has had three daughters play for WDC teams, the two oldest – Courtney and Caitlin – who played on the Wolverine’s state championship team. Casey played in later years. Courtney even now is an assistant coach for Wadena-Deer Creek, serving under her mom’s tutelage.

Volkmann said all of her girls started coming to the gym with her very early in their childhood. So, she was able to balance her coaching duties with her parenting responsibilities. She added, not many coaches anymore are willing to make the tradeoff considering the increasing complexities of high school coaching.

“Times have changed,” she said. “You’re not going to see 30-year coaches anymore.”

Gallant, who knows a thing or two about what it takes to coach, agrees.

“Sue is likely one of the last of a breed of coaches that has been able to lead a program for a very long period of time,” he said. “The demands of the job haven't phased here as she has led her program for 30 plus years. In our current era, we see very few coaches who are able to stay in place for that length of time. She is an exceptionally driven individual who expects and demands hard work and dedication from her student athletes. She is very appreciated by her student athletes.”

So, while the reality of coaching has become harder and harder, what makes Volkmann want to come back year after year?

“It’s the kids–definitely the kids. The kids I’ve had are outstanding,” she said. “It’s made it worth coming back. I’ve had a whole lot of fun; lots of good memories.”

Volkmann said she doesn’t give much thought to retirement, even after nearly 40 years of coaching. She said she and her husband, Tim, will talk it over after the season.

“I look at it at the end of the year and see where our lives are at,” she said. “I just take it year by year.”

Asked to reflect on what it meant to finally achieve the 600 plateau, Volkmann simply added with a good laugh: “To me, it mostly shows that I’m getting to be an old person.”

Other Minnesota volleyball coaches in the 600-win club

  • Franz Boelter (Bethlehem Academy), 2017
  • Connie Boyum-Erzar (Deer River), 2016
  • Lonnie Morken (Mabel-Canton), 2016
  • Diane Ross (Underwood), 2015
  • Susan Alstrom (Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart), 2013
  • Ruth Hayden (Ada-Borup), 2010
  • Rod Nakagaki (Owatonna), 2008
  • John Dzubay (Stewartville), 2005
  • Walt Weaver (Apple Valley), 2005
  • Milan Mader (Lakeville), 2002
  • Donna Brinton-Hawkins (Belle Plaine), 2001
  • Gail Nucech (Hibbing), 1999
Devlyn Brooks is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and serves Faith Lutheran Church in Wolverton, Minn. He also works for Forum Communications Co. He can be reached at devlyn.brooks@forumcomm.com for comments and story ideas.
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