Lonnie Morken
Lonnie Morken
From the look on Lonnie Morken's face, it was just another day at the office. The head coach of the Mabel-Canton volleyball team strode the home court sidelines as his girls defeated yet another Southeast Conference opponent, intent on every play of the match. No clue divulged that he was about to join a very select group.

Morken was calm and steady. He cheered good plays, but not loudly. He never once expressed anger or a negative thought, but literally "coached" with a stream of positive, quiet remarks. Those who have witnessed him work for years can attest to the fact that Morken looks exactly the same whether the Cougars are winning or losing. But for Mabel-Canton, the former is usually the case.

When the final point was scored, Morken had become the 15th coach in Minnesota high school history to win 500 volleyball matches.

The Cougars have now won 15 consecutive conference titles. Since Morken took over, the team has also won nine sub-section championships and two section crowns. Now in his 20th year at the helm, Morken has also won the Section Coach of the Year award eight times (including 2012).

Back in 1994 the coach took over a program that hadn't won a single match the previous year. He was just 22 years old. It took five seasons of effort to go from last to first in the SEC.

"Success breeds success after you get going," Morken (500-102) said after Tuesday night's win over Houston. "But one of my favorite quotes is, 'It's hard to get good, but it's even harder to stay good.'

"It's been a great experience. We have some hardworking kids. So often, in a small school you're not able to sustain success year after year because you oftentimes have to deal with limited numbers... For whatever reason, our kids have been able to keep it going, once we got things figured out."

Morken grew up just a few miles down highway 44 in Spring Grove, the son of Evonne and Glenn Morken. Both parents still attend M-C and Spring Grove matches.

After the win, Lonnie got a hug from his mom and a handshake from his dad. Well-wishers clustered, eating celebratory cake. Glen's eyes sparkled. "That's my son," he confided with a nod and a grin, "he's got a good record."

"Every time they win I give the girls homemade suckers," Evonne smiled. "They haven't lost a game this season, so I've made a lot of suckers."

"Twenty years is a long time," Morken noted. "One of our seventh graders' mothers was a senior on my first Mabel-Canton team."

Houston coach Steve Kinstler congratulated Morken. "He loves the game of volleyball," he said. "He's teaching kids how to play the game the right way... not just play, but be intelligent in how you play. He does a great job of teaching all the nuances."

"The volleyball coach's world is a very tight-knit group. We share information with everybody. My first year coaching I got help from him and Shelly (Michelle Anderson of Spring Grove) and Scott Koepke of Caledonia.

"Deep inside we all want to win, but we also want to see the kids enjoy playing volleyball. It's about teaching the kids the love of the game."

How do you achieve 500 wins?

"There are no shortcuts," Morken said. "I think people sometimes think that the machine always runs smoothly and we just throw out the balls... That's not the fact.

"I've had great assistant coaches. Susie Munroe has been with me for a long time, and Bethany Moen has been with me for 16 of the 20 years, both as a player and a coach. She's probably been a part of 430 of those wins.

"We try to play better defense than our opponent and limit our mistakes. I'm a firm believer that in any sport, if you can play good defense you're going to have a chance to win. Offense and serving is going to go up and down, but if you can play defense and keep the ball off the court, you're going to get your chance.

"When I first started coaching I was just trying to teach skills, so a philosophy on how to be successful was the farthest thing from my mind. I didn't have a clue what I wanted. After I started learning more about the game and being able to teach those skills, I started to think about it... 'How can we be good? How can we have success?'

"All the way down to our third and fourth graders, we talk about limiting our errors.

"Especially in a crazy sport like volleyball with all the momentum involved, if you don't make as many errors as your opponent, you'll have a chance to win.

"We want to teach skill and intelligence. How to hit smart. How to serve smart. It's easier said than done. There's that fine line in volleyball where if you're trying not to make an error you're playing too passive. When you're playing good teams, if you're just sending the ball over the net they're just going to rip it back at you. So there's a fine line of being too passive or aggressive enough."

Morken lives in Mabel with his wife, Stephanie, and daughters, Sadie, Sophie, and Sahara. "It's fun now," he said. "One of my daughters is playing now and the other two will be playing in a little bit. It's neat being around them in the gym, (their) wanting to play."

After the crowds drifted away following the big win, the coach helped clean up the gym. "I love what I do," he said.