The Thunderhawks, at 13-6, are in decent shape as the season winds down. In their section 7AAA, they are ranked 32 out of 96. But before sections begin next week, they have to take part in the Iron Range Conference tournament; an annual competition that pits Grand Rapids (7AAA), Greenway (7AA), Hibbing (7AA) and others against one another, regardless of section. Teams are seeded based on last year’s results (Hibbing is ranked first, since they won the tournament last year; Grand Rapids is second) and the winner is Iron Range Conference champion.
“It’s like how the Big 10 Conference has their end of the year tournament,” said Head Coach Bryan Fideldy. “You’re looking at A, AA and AAA teams in what they call the same conference, but we don’t have those teams on our schedule with the exception of the Hibbings and the Greenways.”
There’s a trophy, and some recognition. But a loss in the tournament would hurt the Thunderhawks a lot more than a win would help.
“At this point of the year, we’re looking at next week, when we have to seed for sections,” Fideldy said. “So any losses right now on our record towards the end of the year definitely doesn’t help us in the eyes of the section teams down in the cities. We pretty much have to run the table just to try to create a seed that we think we’re capable of.”
What it amounts to is a chance to tune up and try and pick up some momentum against neighboring teams before the postseason starts.
“Definitely if we get on a roll with wins, it will boost our confidence level, and we’ll do better in sections,” said Kaitlyn Olson, senior outside hitter.
And if teams advance as expected - Grand Rapids at International Falls on Tuesday night, with Greenway at Eveleth-Gilbert - Thursday night would be a rematch of the emotional 3-2 Thunderhawks victory over the Raiders last month. Mentally, the team needs to make sure they don’t overlook teams they already beat, however.
“We want to make sure that we don’t take [teams] for granted,” Olson said. “We beat Greenway, and we’ll, probably end up facing them again. We don’t want to just be like, ‘Oh we beat them already.’”
And since rematches are likely, the team’s intel is much better this time around.
“Familiarity helps us a lot in regards to what other teams are capable of,” Fideldy said. “Of course, they have the same sort of advantage as we do, knowing what we do a lot, and they can prepare that way.”
After the team’s 3-0 victory over Duluth Denfeld last week, Fideldy said now is the time you want your team to be hitting its peak. He thought they were, if not close to it, there.
Olson agreed a few days later.
“I think we’re pretty close,” she said. “I mean we do have our ups and downs but I think we’re at a strength right now, definitely...Our serve-receive and passing has been pretty good. There’s always things that we can critique and make better, but if we can get a little better at our hitting – we have had our hitting errors – it’s something we can improve on.”
They will also be doing it on the road to start, despite being a higher seed than International Falls. It’s a way to try and balance the home-road schedule, Fideldy said, so a lower-seeded team doesn’t end up exclusively on the road to finish the season.
Still, competition is competition. And there have been some competitive games in the area this season.
“It’s an opportunity to face a couple local teams. There are a couple in our area that are obviously pretty talented,” Fideldy said. “So it’s kind of a good tune up before our sub-sections start.”
But the bottom line for the Thunderhawks, according to Fideldy:
“We’re not in a situation now where we want to put any more losses on our records.” Check grandrapidsmn.com for results from Tuesday’s match.