The Northland College volleyball team closed the books on the regular season just over a week ago, and the LumberJills were once again left out of the playoff picture in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference. But all that could be changing in the near future under head coach Chelsea Meierotto, who has the program trending in the right direction for the first time in a long time after just one season in charge.
“It’s definitely a rebuilding year, trying to build the program back up and change the culture,” Meierotto said. “We want to grow and improve and compete in the UMAC.”
She has certainly made progress on that front already.
The Jills won nine matches this season, the most for the program since 2012, and considering the strong local connection Meierotto brings to the team and her experience playing at the collegiate level, there’s plenty for Northland volleyball fans to be excited about in the coming years.
The Meierotto name is the stuff of legend in Washburn, where Chelsea’s parents Mike and Wendy Meierotto established a veritable dynasty in their years coaching volleyball together at the high school.
“My dad did the majority of the coaching and my mom was doing all the stuff that doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves,” Meierotto said. “It took both of them and they’re a pretty good team together. I was in the third grade when they started coaching — just a little kid — so me and my sisters were always in the gym with them, being the managers.”
The Meierotto girls all eventually grew up to take on starring roles for the Castle Guards, and the program reached its pinnacle when Chelsea and her older sister Aubrey helped Washburn capture the WIAA Division 3 state championship in 2000.
Aubrey, who still holds the all-time record for most kills in a state tournament match with 50, went on to play for the Wisconsin Badgers, and two years later, Chelsea opted to stay closer to home and signed with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she played all four seasons and helped the Bulldogs to two NCAA Division II Final Four appearances.
The youngest sister, Whitney, also wound up at UMD and played with Chelsea for two seasons.
“I am the connection with everybody,” Chelsea said. “I was lucky and fortunate enough to be able to play with both of them.”
That strong connection to family eventually led Chelsea back to the bay area, and she spent several years as the assistant coach at Washburn before taking over head coaching duties from her parents in 2017.
“They actually stopped coaching when my mom passed away from cancer, so my dad was ready to be done,” she said. “He didn’t feel like he could do it without my mom, and so then I stepped in for two years as head coach before this opportunity came up. I went and did my own thing, but then it’s back home. I love this area. My family is all here, and it’s where I wanted to be.”
Though she never really considered coaching at the collegiate level, Meierotto soon learned of the open position at Northland and applied for the job at the urging of a number of people, including Emma Rusch, one of her former players at Washburn who transferred from UW-River Falls to Northland as a sophomore last year.
“Mike and Wendy taught me how to play from middle school,” Rusch said. “I started in seventh grade, so I’ve always played for the Meierottos. [Chelsea] and her family know the game more than anybody and the second I found out the coaching position was open I texted her and said please apply, it would be so amazing to have you again. And when she was hired it was like a dream come true to be playing for her again. She’s such a good coach, not even just on the floor. Outside of volleyball she’s such a good role model and person to have in your life. She’s always there for us.”
Rusch is one of two former Washburn players now on the Northland roster, along with Nora Hagen, but the local connection in the team runs even deeper still because of Meierotto’s far-reaching reputation in the region.
Northland junior Dez LaPointe, a Bayfield graduate, played against Meierotto’s teams all throughout high school, as did Northland freshman Bailey Thompson, who played at Mercer.
“I played against Washburn all my four years and I saw how good of a coach she was,” Thompson said. “I hadn’t signed with any other college yet, so when she said she was coaching I signed because I wanted to play for her.”
Building the Northland program with local athletes is a primary goal for Meierotto going forward, and it’s a great way to continue her parents’ legacy of developing talent and promoting the sport among the local youth.
“I really love my parents and everything they’ve done for the youth in our area, and that meant so much to me to see the connections and relationships they made while coaching middle school and high school, and the connections they had with the girls after they graduated and moved on,” Meierotto said.
“Having good role models like that in the lives of young kids is really important and just something that they instilled in us as kids and something I’m passionate about myself and wanted to carry forward.”
At the end of the day, developing the team with local players is also mutually beneficial for all the programs involved, and a good chance to put Northland on the map for girls from across the region who want to take a shot and excel at the next level.
“It’s really important to get the local schools and communities interested in Northland College volleyball,” she said. “We’re all here and being local will help draw some more attention, to know that area athletes have an opportunity. I think it will help the program, and I just think the more familiar faces we can get, the better and stronger our program can be in our area. There’s a local connection and there are good opportunities here.”