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Spuds snag state bid from Alex

Moorhead’s Alyssa LaFlamme tips a ball over the outstretched arms of Alexandria’s Liz Schultz (left) and Wensia Johnson during the Section 8AAA title match on Friday night in Fergus Falls. LaFlamme helped lead the Spuds to a 3-1 win and into the state tournament with 15 kills. (Mark Ripley/Select Digital Memories)

They always say the third time is the charm.

It was that and then some for Moorhead’s volleyball team Friday night, when it claimed a Minnesota Class 3A, Section 8 championship with a 23-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-15 win over Alexandria – a team the Spuds had lost to twice during the regular season.

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As a result, the Spuds will advance to the state tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. It’s the Spuds 20th state tournament in school history – their first since 2010.

“We just knew there wasn’t any other option other than to win,” said Moorhead senior hitter Olivia Ostlie, whose team has now won nine of its last 10 matches. “We have found a rhythm and we have kept going with it.”

The Spuds, now 18-11, jumped out to a 13-7 lead in the first set, but ended up losing 25-23. No need to panic is the message Spuds coach Char Lien relayed to her team.

“That maturity finally kicked in,” said Lien, who plays six seniors. “This team plays so much better when we get that lead and get that confidence.”

Building leads was no problem at all for the Spuds Friday night. After letting the first set slip away, the Spuds forced Alexandria to play catch-up the rest of the match. It was a bit uncharacteristic for Alexandria, whose season ends with a 20-9 record.

“We absolutely did have to play catch-up all night,” said Alexandria coach Becky Schlichting. “Our girls have that fight and that character, but as well as Moorhead has been playing lately, we just could not afford to play from behind.”

The Spuds built leads of 17-13 and 19-15 in the second set before Alexandria battled back to tie it at 19, 20, 21, and 22. The Spuds then produced three straight blocks to seal their first set win.

“We could take a deep breath and play a little more relaxed after that,” said Lien.

The Spuds built leads of 17-5, 20-10 and 24-20 in the third set. But Alexandria would not die, closing the gap to 24-23. That’s when one of Alexandria’s digs sailed out of bounds to give the Spuds their 25-23 win.

It was all Spuds in the fourth-and-deciding set. They built a quick 10-5 lead and expanded that to 17-11 after kills from Ostlie, Emily Tollefson and Brianna Carney. Carney finished the match with 15 kills, Ostlie with 13 and the left-handed Tollefson with seven. Kalley Bistodeau led Alexandria with 11 kills, while Wensia Johnson added 10 and Amanda Haack finished with 36 assists.

“Olivia has been our mainstay for much of the season,” said Lien, who has been the Spuds’ head coach since 1999. “But we knew we were going to have to mix it up against a good team like Alexandria.”

For the Cardinals, it was a disappointing ending for a team that talked about making a state tournament from the beginning of the season. The Cardinals featured a lot of youth on this team. Losing Amanda Christianson and Emily Kuennen won’t be easy, but the returning players could benefit from the experience of a section title match.

“Next year, should we be fortunate enough to be in the situation again, they will be hungry for the win and they will know what it takes to pull through,” Schlichting said. “That feeling of falling just short of a season-long goal is heartbreaking. The returning crew will do everything they are capable of to make sure they don’t feel that way again. They’re a competitive, driven and focused crew that will have their sights set high again next year.”

This core group will head into the off-season knowing they helped the program rise toward the top of the section and conference fields again. Schlichting called it the most successful season for the program since 2009, when the Cardinals made it to the state tournament. The drive that got them this far should also help them as they look to build on a successful season in 2014.

“If this junior class can get their underclassmen to buy into the level of focus, dedication and drive they have, good things will continue to develop for the Alexandria volleyball program,” Schlichting said. “The only way this season could have been more pleasing would be for the girls to still be playing this week. They just weren’t ready to be done yet. The team and program took so many steps in the right direction this year, and I can’t wait to see what the 2014 season brings. It’s just too bad it is such a long, long wait."

SECTION 8AAA CHAMPIONSHIP Moorhead 3, Alexandria 1

(23-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-15)

ALEXANDRIA – Haack – 1 kill, 36 assists, 1 ace, 14 digs, 1 solo block, 1 assisted block; Bistodeau – 11 kills, 1 ace, 10 digs; Kuennen – 7 kills, 1 dig, 1 solo block, 1 assisted block; Christianson – 3 kills, 1 assist, 1 ace, 13 digs, 3 solo blocks, 1 assisted block; Johnson – 10 kills, 1 dig, 1 assisted block; Liz Schultz – 6 kills, 3 aces, 8 digs, 2 solo blocks, 2 assisted blocks; Gretchen Watkins – 1 ace, 9 digs; Katie Dolan – 2 aces, 13 digs

MOORHEAD (kills-blocks-aces): Lund 0-0-0 (7 digs), Gunkel 0-1-2 (29 assists, 17 digs), Borgen 0-0-0, Uglem 6-1-0 (17 digs), Tollefson 7-1-3, Carney 15-2-0, Ostlie 13-1-2, Gulseth 0-0-1 (18 digs), LaFlamme 15-2-1.

By Kevin Schnepf and Eric Morken - Fargo Forum/Echo Press