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Cards return to roost atop the CLC

From left to right, Alexandria’s Katie Dolan, Kalley Bistodeau, Wensia Johnson and Liz Schultz celebrate a kill in the third set last Thursday night as it becomes clear that the Cardinals are going to pick up a sweep over second-place Rocori and wrap up a CLC title. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

There was a time not that long ago when the Alexandria volleyball program ruled the Central Lakes Conference.

After a two-year hiatus, the Cardinals returned to their perch as the CLC champions with their most impressive win of the conference season to this point. Rocori came to town last Thursday 9-1 in league play with its only loss coming in a five-set match against Alexandria on September 10.

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The Cardinals (16-5, 11-0 CLC) needed just three sets to finish them off this time. Alexandria scored five straight points to take the first set 25-20. It was all Cardinals after that as they finished off the Spartans 25-17 and 25-15 to secure their first CLC championship since both Rocori and Alexandria finished 11-1 in 2010.

“It feels good, and the nice thing is that the girls have worked really hard for it,” head coach Becky Schlichting said. “It’s not like the girls just came out with this decent team and happened to have a win. Rocori’s a great team and to beat them to solidify [the conference title] is really awesome for them.”

Alexandria and Rocori looked like they would be in for a long night after an evenly played first set. The Spartans led 17-15 in the opener to force a Cardinals’ timeout. Alexandria regrouped and tied it at 18 apiece before the two teams exchanged points until it was 20-20.

That’s when Alexandria came alive to score the next five points. The Spartans never recovered from that as the Cardinals kept them at an arm’s length through each of the next two sets.

“Never giving up and always staying on top and not letting ourselves get down on ourselves,” outside hitter Kalley Bistodeau said of the keys to Alexandria’s consistency through CLC play this year. “We always stay positive with each other and that helps us get through it.”

Bistodeau is part of a talented junior class that has stepped in and been instrumental to this team’s success this season. Last year’s squad was dominated by seniors, meaning there were plenty of shoes to fill coming off an 8-4 finish in the CLC in 2012.

Bistodeau had six kills, three serving aces and 13 digs against the Spartans. Fellow junior Liz Schultz added six kills and four blocks. Sophomore Wensia Johnson tied senior Amanda Christianson with a team-high eight kills and junior Amanda Haack ran the offense with 30 assists.

“They’ve done an awesome job,” Christianson said of the underclassmen on this team. “They’ve done as much as they could do. I’m so proud of each and every one of them. It’s just been such a fun year and we’ve grown so much together. We just play as one.”

All the players fed off an energized home crowd, especially a student section that was into the match from the first serve. Rocori students traveled to the game as well, which created the kind of atmosphere that Schlichting said these girls love to play in.

“This is a crew that likes to play for people and likes to have fans and they like to feel that support,” she said. “I knew right away with the way things were set up that they were going to be excited, and they were going to be ready to go. They love to have that noise and that pressure on them. They really rise well to that challenge.”

It’s also a group that seems to be getting better with every passing match. Alexandria needed five sets to get past St. Cloud Tech, Rocori and Fergus Falls during a stretch from September 5-12. The Cardinals needed just three sets to beat both Tech and now Rocori the second time around last week. They were scheduled to play their second match against Fergus Falls last night, Tuesday.

“I feel like we’ve been playing better, which is exciting,” Christianson said. “It should be like that. We need to be playing our best at the end of the season because we want to go to state, which we will be there.”

The Cardinals were sitting on top of the section standings with a perfect 9-0 record against 8AAA foes heading into this past weekend. Monticello is right behind the Cardinals with Bemidji and Moorhead rounding out the top four teams.

“We know this is when we peak,” Kuennen said. “We’ve been waiting for this time through all the games that we’ve been playing. We’re just ready. Right away now, we’re just ready to see how far we can go, which is state for sure.”

That’s the kind of confidence this team has gathered through a 16-5 start to the season. The Cardinals don’t just think they could make a state tournament for the first time since 2009. They believe they should.

“We’re confident,” Schlichting said. “Obviously, you don’t want to get overconfident and just assume things are going to happen…but it’s realistic. It’s not some far-fetched dream for us that we hope to achieve. It’s a very realistic, tangible thing that we can get if we continue to take care of business.”

MATCH STATISTICS Alexandria 3, St. Cloud Tech 0

(25-20, 25-17, 25-15)

ALEXANDRIA – Haack – 2 kills, 30 assists, 3 aces, 4 digs; Bistodeau – 6 kills, 3 aces, 13 digs, 1 solo block; Kuennen – 4 kills, 1 dig, 1 solo block, 2 assisted blocks; Christianson – 8 kills, 2 assists, 12 digs, 3 solo blocks, 1 assisted block; Johnson – 8 kills, 1 dig; Schultz – 6 kills, 2 aces, 5 digs, 3 solo blocks, 1 assisted block; Gretchen Watkins – 2 aces, 9 digs; Katie Dolan – 8 digs

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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