Patnode resurrects volleyball program

Mary Patnode, the Class 3A Section 7 Coach of the Year, has compiled a record of 64-92 over seven seasons with the Tigers. She has ended with a better record than the previous season every year, but one (2013).
Mary Patnode, the Class 3A Section 7 Coach of the Year, has compiled a record of 64-92 over seven seasons with the Tigers. She has ended with a better record than the previous season every year, but one (2013).

After years of struggling, including a streak of 62-straight losses between 2008 and 2011, Princeton volleyball appears to be back on track.
They ended this season with a 19-9 record and made it all the way to the sectional semifinal. The last time that happened, Coach Mary Patnode was a senior, playing on the team 19 years ago.
“I was so sad to hear that the program had gone downhill,” Patnode said. “I was determined to turn that around.”
With zero winning seasons since the start of the century, that task didn’t come easy for Patnode. In her first season as head coach, 2010, the team failed to win a single game and actually won just two sets.
“The girls were just so used to losing.” Patnode said. “We would lose a game and they would be singing on the bus rides home and they didn’t know what it felt like to win, so that was really hard to turnaround.”
That lack of competitiveness really ate at the coach early on. She didn’t expect to take a loss harder than her team. Instead she wanted to be competitive right from the jump, but it wasn’t in the cards.
“That was something that I had to get over and take a different strategy,” Patnode said. “I went in hard right away and I was tough on them and I think it was hard on the girls as well.”
Then the team pieced together a couple wins and she could feel the mindset shift.
“I remember that first win and I remember saying ‘this is what it feels like to win and this is what it feels like to work hard and now you can get better and better and better’,” Patnode said.
And they did get better. After going a combined 2-71 in the previous three years, the team posted back to back nine-win seasons in 2012 and 2013. Patnode says those seasons were crucial for this year’s success even though just one of those players are the same. Today’s players watched those teams in middle school and provided them with a goal for future seasons, really showing them how to win.
The team’s added success didn’t just happen overnight, either. Patnode started a Junior Olympics program with her husband Dan when she first arrived. The program begins every June and she believes it’s been the main cog for progress, providing high school players with more time on the court and giving Patnode increased flexibility to install systems and find players that gel together.
All of that hard work culminated into a jolt of victories this season and despite finishing 2-7 in conference play during 2015, Patnode could really feel that it would happen before the season began.
“We knew each other so well that I could look at them while they were playing and they would know exactly what I was going to say to them.”
Princeton’s initial goal was to host a sectional game and then after a strong start the goal shifted towards a first round bye. Mission accomplished.
Then, the team dispatched Forest Lake in four sets and came into the sectional semifinal flying high, especially after Patnode was awarded sectional coach of the year honors, a well-deserved award, according to her players.
“She’s my favorite coach, senior captain Maddie Nierengarten said. “She’s like a second mom who really cares for her players on and off the court.”
Patnode and Nierengarten couldn’t get past Cambridge-Isanti in the next game. Nierengarten had a team-high 22 kills, but the season ended in fifth-set heartbreak.
“It would have been nice to beat Cambridge and get to that sectional championship this year, but we have lots coming back and there is a big opportunity to get there in the next year or two,” Patnode said.
That step will be tougher without all-conference players Sierra Mattson and Nierengarten, as well as, honorable mention Sonia Stay, but Patnode hopes that honorable mentions Mallory Jordahl and Abby Siefert can take up a leadership role and continue the positive trend.