Molly Lohman went through grade school in Mankato as the tallest person in her class. "Boy or girl," she said.

Tall girls appeal to basketball and volleyball coaches. Also swimming.

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Nicole Lohman, Molly's older sister, was a swimmer at Mankato West. "The coach said, 'Molly should be a swimmer, too,' because tallness was an advantage in the pool," said Janine Lohman, the girls' mother.

Too late. Molly had started playing volleyball in a more competitive manner as an eighth-grader, and she was hooked.

Mankato wasn't exactly a volleyball hotbed. The offseason play available consisted mostly of playing tournaments in the area. Molly wanted to develop her skills past the point of the girl who played volleyball because she was tall.

"I was talking to another mother, a friend of mine, about what Molly could do to get better and she told me about Northern Lights," Janine said.

Northern Lights is the junior volleyball club in Burnsville that has been helping to develop standout players for over two decades. Tryouts take place the day after the state high school championship matches are played in November.

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Mankato West's season ended in the first round of the section in Molly's sophomore season, and then Molly and her mother made the 75-minute drive to Burnsville in mid-November for tryouts.

There had been no advance notice of Lohman's potential before the tryouts. She was selected, at 15, for the Northern Lights "A" team in her age group.

"We didn't know how strict they were about being at practice," Janine said. "We had a family trip to Florida scheduled that we couldn't miss and Molly missed her first week of Northern Lights practice.

"And the first practice she was there, the reaction of the other parents was, 'Who is this girl? Why is she on the team? She's terrible.' "

That proved to be an erroneous scouting report. Eleven months later, in October of her junior season, Lohman gave a verbal commitment to the Gophers over numerous other college offers.

"Molly came in, got a grasp on the college game, and became a starter for us during the Big Ten season," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon. "She has been a four-year starter as a blocker. That doesn't happen often at this level."

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The Gophers were a youthful collection in 2014, with Sarah Wilhite and the Tapp twins, Hannah and Paige, as sophomores, and Lohman, a freshman, getting much work across the front.

Those Gophers were under .500 in the Big Ten and ended a streak of 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments. It was not the start of a trend. The Gophers went to the Final Four in 2015 and 2016.

Now, Wilhite and the Hannah Tapp are playing in Italy, and Paige Tapp is training with USA Volleyball, and the 6-3 Lohman is a co-captain with Maddie Beal, and expected to provide senior leadership.

"Molly always has been quiet," Janine said. "It's an adjustment for her, to be more vocal."

Lohman was asked: Is it tougher for you to actually push younger teammates a bit than to try to block all those huge hitters in the Big Ten?

"Definitely, I think it is," she said. "The coaches have asked me to be more outgoing, particularly on the court when we're in trouble. I've had to push myself out of my comfort zone."

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The on-court fire comes more naturally to Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the terrific junior setter. The maturation of the Tapps, Wilhite and Lohman had much to do with back-to-back Final Four seasons, and so did the arrival of "Sam" as the quarterback.

There is again much youth across the Gophers' front, but this time with no slippage. The Gophers are 22-2 overall, 11-2 in the Big Ten after opening the weekend with a three-set sweep of Maryland on Friday night.

Janine did most of the driving on Molly's 75-minute commute from Mankato to Burnsville for three years with Northern Lights: three practices a week, mid-November to early July.

"Molly would sit in the back and do her homework one way, and we would talk the other," Janine said. "When Northern Lights was over, I actually started to miss those drives with her."

The Lohmans made the commute to the Twin Cities again Friday, this time with Nicole included. She graduated from Gustavus Adolphus last spring, after four years as a successful collegiate swimmer.

"I'll be there tonight," Nicole said earlier Friday. "Molly would be upset if I missed it. She likes that family support."

Family always has been important with the Lohmans, enough so it meant missing the first week of practices at Northern Lights. 

This article is written by Patrick Reusse from Star Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.