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Volleyball: Marshall proves why it's one of the top programs in Minnesota with sweep of Alexandria

A look at what keys consistency year after year for the defending Class 3A state champions, and what Alexandria can gain from Thursday's match after the Tigers improved to 10-1 with 25-11, 25-13 and 25-17 wins.

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Marshall senior setter Lauren Wherry sets up one of her hitters while Alexandria's Emma Ballou, 3, and Hadley Thul, 4, await the block attempt on Sept. 15, 2022. Wherry and the Tigers are ranked No. 1 in the most recent Class 3A state polls as they improved to 10-1 with a sweep of the Cardinals on Thursday.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — Two of the top-10 teams in the Class AAA volleyball polls met in Alexandria on Thursday night, and Marshall proved why it is one of the best programs in the state regardless of class level.

The Tigers (33-2 in 2021) are the defending state champions and veterans of 29 state tournament appearances. They are the No. 1-ranked team in Class AAA again this fall, and Marshall improved to 10-1 overall with its 3-0 sweep over the seventh-ranked Cardinals (3-3).

“Alexandria’s got a good team and they’ve got a number of kids who can score offensively,” Marshall head coach Dan Westby said. “It’s difficult to deal with a team like that. One of the things we felt we needed to do was control the pace. For the most part, we did that. Took care of the ball and were able to put the ball away when we had opportunities. They can give people problems at the net, so we felt we needed to find ways to neutralize that size difference.”

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The Marshall volleyball team celebrates a Leah Jones kill during a win over Alexandria on Sept. 15, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Marshall never left much doubt in this one. The Tigers took the first two sets by 25-11 and 25-13 scores. They held the Cardinals at arm’s length in the third as well on the way to putting the match away with a 25-17 win.

The Tigers feature a talented outside hitter in 6-foot, 2-inch senior Leah Jones. Unofficial stats had Jones for a match-high 15 kills. She got in plenty of aggressive swings, but the whole Tigers’ front row also showed off a good sense of when to mix in the tip to keep the defense honest.

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“We try to help them in practice as much as we can, but ultimately once the match starts there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Westby said. “They need to see those things and execute, and I thought we really did a nice job of that, especially early on. We were able to find some spots on the floor with some off-speed shots. This is a tough place to play here. Coming on the road against a top-10 team, this is a big win for us.”

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Marshall's 6-foot, 2-inch outside hitter Leah Jones puts down a kill against the block attempt of Kiya Issendorf of Alexandria on Sept. 15, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Marshall likes to test itself against other top programs in the state. The Tigers’ home tournament Sept. 9-10 featured Class 4A programs like Burnsville (7-4) and third-ranked Lakeville North (9-2).

Lakeville North handed Marshall its only loss of the season on Sept. 10 in a 2-0 match. The Tigers have not dropped a single set outside of that weekend tournament in six regular-season matches.

Thursday’s two-plus hour trip to face Alexandria was another example of Marshall doing what it can to face top competition on a consistent basis.

“It is worth it. Alexandria is kind of the same way. They do a lot of traveling, and we’re not afraid to get on the bus and go play good teams,” Westby said. “We just feel it’s only going to make us better in the end. We were excited to get Alexandria on the schedule. We had played them for a number of years. Then all of a sudden we stopped, and we’re glad to have them back.”

Westby has been with the Marshall program since 2000. He spent four seasons as an assistant coach under Terry Culhane before Culhane became the volleyball coach at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. Culhane retired from that position in 2021 and is back on the bench for the Tigers now as an assistant with Westby.

Together, that duo has led a Marshall team that has been as consistent as nearly any program in Minnesota for decades. Westby said the key to that is that players in Marshall love the game and are willing to work hard at it.

“Our kids are extremely committed, and a lot of people aren’t willing to do what they do,” Westby said. “Our kids are in the gym four days a week all summer long. A lot of kids don’t want to do that. It’s a tough sell initially, but when you see the success down the road, I think kids want to be part of that. Then they’re willing to do some of those extra things.”

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Alexandria sophomore outside hitter Hadley Thul hits from the back row during the Cardinals' match against top-ranked Marshall on Sept. 15, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Alexandria head coach Mary Byrne said the pace and consistency that Marshall plays at is ultimately where the Cardinals hope to be at someday. Byrne liked the way her team battled better in the final set, but a slow start was too much to overcome on Thursday.

“Marshall plays fast, and that’s the first time we’ve seen anything like that,” Byrne said. “We worked hard to make some adjustments. We’re just not at that pace. ...They pass the ball, and they serve well. Volleyball is a serve and pass game, and they do it outstanding.”

Unofficial stats had sophomore Hadley Thul leading Alexandria with 10 kills. Junior Maddi Buysse added 6, sophomore Addie Rossum chipped in 5, and senior Charlotte Lempka had 4 kills. Senior setter Kiya Issendorf dished out 20 assists.

“We just want to be able at some point in our program be able to play at that level,” Byrne said of what her team takes from playing Marshall. “We need to play against it, we need to see what that is. That’s the start to being a little stronger program from top to bottom.”

Alexandria has yet to fall to a Section 8-3A opponent this season. Their three losses are to non-section teams in Class 4A’s Sartell (8-2), along with Willmar (7-2) and Marshall. Both Willmar and Marshall play out of Section 2-3A.

“We’re playing a lot of sophomores, so we’re very young,” Byrne said. “Each match, we gain more experience, and it’s really starting to show. That’s what’s going to get us to reach our goals at the end of the season.”

Detroit Lakes (4-0) and Rocori (5-2) are a couple of teams off to good starts in Alexandria’s Section 8-3A field. Byrne’s confidence has not wavered in her team’s ability to be right there as one of the top teams in the section by season’s end.

“We’re playing some good volleyball. We’ve just had some top teams in the state, but that’s what we want in our schedule,” Byrne said. “We need it to be tough if we want to see ourselves there. If we don’t play that, we’re not going to be able to get to that type of tempo on offense. It’s great experience for us, so not disappointed whatsoever in playing teams like that. It just took us too long to really believe in ourselves.”

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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