Volleyball

Belle Sand’s small-town background fueled her journey to SU

Courtesy of SU Athletics

From walk-on to program great, how Belle Sand made it to Syracuse from Mabel, Minnesota.

A stretch of U.S. Highway 44 in rural, southeastern Minnesota passes by fields, affordable one-story homes and a small sign introducing passersby to a place that only 780 people call home. “Welcome to Mabel: Rural America’s Steam Engine Capitol.”

The town’s 306 acres of land include one K-12 school, one central road called Main Street and a tight-knit community where everyone, one resident said, has the “Minnesota Nice,” a stereotypical expression that labels Minnesotans as friendly.

“Everyone is a part of something,” Tricia Sand, a resident of Mabel, said. “The whole community rallies together. It’s part of something bigger.”

More than 1,000 miles away Belle Sand, Tricia’s daughter, was in Manley Field House and thought about what her life was while surrounded by what her life had become. Dressed in Syracuse athletic gear, Sand spoke of home fondly, with an occasional appearance of her Minnesota accent. Mabel gave Sand the sport she loves and the opportunity to become her idol. After three years at Syracuse, Sand knows her support system, her town, got her here.

Sand enters her senior year in what Tricia assumes is her last of playing competitive volleyball. A season removed from going 7-23, Sand wants to help SU (3-4) find the success it had a few years ago. In 2015, SU went 23-8 with Sand recording the second-most digs in a single season, 455, in program history.

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“You play in gym class, but I always knew my love went deeper than just the gym class tournament type of play,” Sand said. “… Ever since I could get a hand on my ball I never let it go.”

Volleyball runs in the Sand family. Belle’s mother, sister and cousins all played competitively. In 2001, Sand’s older cousins were on the Mabel-Canton School team that reached the later rounds of the Minnesota State Volleyball Tournament in the Xcel Energy Center, home of the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild. A 6-year-old Sand was there, swinging her head back and forth as she tracked the ball.

That year, her sister entered the Mabel-Canton volleyball camp and Sand admired from a stage in the barn-like gymnasium. Lonnie Morken, Sand’s coach who is entering his 24th year at Mabel-Canton, recalled Sand sitting on the stage and pleading to enter the camp, which was reserved for grade-school kids, a year early.

“She would do anything,” Morken said. “If the older kids were playing, she would help shag balls. She would partner up with somebody if we had odd numbers.”

Morken estimated that he’s sent 20 players from Mabel-Canton to collegiate programs. The majority have gone to Division II and Division III schools. Only two have gone to Division I: Sand and Sand’s hero.

“Karlie Urbaniak was my God,” Sand said, throwing her hands out in the air. “I remember Karlie coming back and anytime she stepped in the room my eyes just went ‘Boom.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is God. This is my volleyball God.’”

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Urbaniak was named Minnesota’s Miss Volleyball in 2003. When Urbaniak committed to North Carolina State, Sand started second grade and told Tricia that she too would go to a Division I school on the East Coast. At the time, Tricia didn’t even know what Division I was.

In order to get to the East Coast, Sand turned her house into a makeshift training facility. Tricia remembered her daughter always having a ball in her hand, breaking things in the house and practicing for hours against a wall. At any given time, she said, up to 20 volleyballs were strewn around the house.

Sometimes the house wasn’t enough. Mabel-Canton’s gym, used for choir performances and school plays, became Sand’s training ground. Once, Tricia had to go get Sand from the gym when she skipped the school bus home.

When Morken attended volleyball camps across the state, Sand joined him. That meant getting picked up as early as 5:30 a.m. and getting dropped off at 7 p.m. Multiple times a summer, Sand woke up the very next morning and traveled with Morken again. In eighth grade, she joined the high school varsity team with the same goal always in mind.

Late in her senior year, Syracuse was the only Atlantic Coast Conference program to offer Sand a shot at her dream. Foregoing starring roles at local Division II schools, Sand walked on at SU.

During her first three weeks at SU, Sand called Tricia and explained all her doubts. At that moment, her teammates were so good it didn’t seem like she knew how to play volleyball. Sand only played outside hitter in high school and now, walking on at SU, head coach Leonid Yelin wanted to switch her to libero.

In the first tournament of her collegiate career, Sand didn’t enter the game at all. The second weekend, she was on the court for eight points. The next week against Ohio, Sand entered the game as a libero for the first time. A month later, on Oct. 19, 2014, Sand led the Orange in a win against Wake Forest with eight digs and has started at libero ever since.

“You don’t realize how much everyone on your team impacts you,” Sand said. “But, they helped make me the player that I am today.”

SU vs Siena in the Syracuse Tournament (Photos by Michael J. Okoniewski-SU Athletic Communications)

Courtesy of SU Athletics

For Sand, summers are spent back home training and coaching. She still helps out at the same volleyball camps. As skilled as Urbaniak was on the court, Sand admired her for everything she was off of it.

“Now that I’ve had help to get me to this position I only want to give back,” Sand said. “Hopefully one day I’m sitting here listening to some of these girls playing DI on the East Coast.”

Last September, Syracuse took on the Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, about two hours from Mabel. SU athletes typically get tickets for family and friends to attend games, and for this game Sand received about 20. Sand expected Morken, Tricia and some family friends to go.

She was unaware that her family planned for more than 100 people from Mabel and surrounding areas to make the trip down. Younger kids who watched Sand in high school showed up, middle schoolers went with their families and Morken brought down the entire volleyball team. Here was Mabel coming together for something bigger, rallying around one of their own.

“I have this saying,” Sand said. “‘You can’t always leave, you can always come home.’”

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