The Alexandria volleyball team has proven so far this season that it can play with some good teams in the conference and section fields.

The Cardinals (7-9, 4-2 Central Lakes Conference) pushed a 6-2 Moorhead team to five sets on Sept. 17 before falling to the Spuds. That was after beating Willmar (7-4) in five sets on Sept. 12. On Thursday, Alexandria tested itself against another Section 8AAA power when Brainerd (8-3, 5-1) came to town. In the midst of four close sets, the Warriors found a way to finish things off as they secured the 3-1 win over Alexandria.

“We battled. We just need all six players having a good game,” Alexandria head coach Mary Byrne said. “We don’t need anyone to play a perfect game. We just need six good players out there, and that’s what Brainerd does to you. They just keep the ball in play, so that’s where we need to start really focusing on playing a consistent level of volleyball and not have those highs and lows that we had tonight.”

Byrne was disappointed with the way the Cardinals started the match. Brainerd stole a close first set 25-21 before taking a 2-0 lead with a 25-16 win in the second set.

“We came out very slow, sluggish and it wasn’t the same team,” Byrne said. “It just took us too long to get a rhythm out there and a chemistry of all six players playing together. Disappointing start, but they did fight hard at the end.”

Alexandria's Lilly Thul (left) and Ella Grove block a kill attempt by Brainerd's Delaney Schaeffer on Thursday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria's Lilly Thul (left) and Ella Grove block a kill attempt by Brainerd's Delaney Schaeffer on Thursday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

The Cardinals held a 21-17 lead in the third set that forced a Brainerd timeout. The Warriors rallied to tie the match at 25-25 when senior outside hitter Avery Eckman blocked a ball that hung on the net before rolling over and staying just in.

That’s when Alexandria went to one of it’s seniors. Ella Grove put down two straight kills that won the set 27-25 to extend the match.

“That’s the consistency we’re looking for,” Byrne said of the third set. “That comes down to mental toughness for us being able to play at a high level for a longer period of time.”

Things were close again in the fourth set, but the Warriors found a way to close. It was 22-21 before Brainerd rattled off three straight points to win it. Madi Genz put things away with an emphatic kill at the net.

“At the end of the match, they did find a way to win, but I thought the tempo changed a lot in that third set,” Brainerd head coach Rick Kuehlwein said. “They ball handled pretty well, and Alex just brought every ball up. You got to give them credit. I think at the end, there were a few lucky breaks and that’s how we got out.”

The Warriors have a powerful hitter to lean on in Eckman. She led all players with 19 kills, but Alexandria senior Mia McGrane was right behind her with 18 in an effort that caught the eye of her head coach.

Alexandria senior Mia McGrane puts down one of her 18 kills between the defense of Brainerd's Karli Anderson (left) and Jada Borders. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria senior Mia McGrane puts down one of her 18 kills between the defense of Brainerd's Karli Anderson (left) and Jada Borders. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“That’s the best match I’ve ever seen her play,” Byrne said. “Hopefully that will really fire up the rest of her teammates. Just her intensity and her passion she was showing on the court. No ball was going to hit the court. She was just on top of her game.”

Alexandria’s rise to being a competitive team in the section with a relatively young group has added to the parity of the 8AAA field. Kuehlwein feels that Brainerd, Alexandria, Moorhead and Sartell-St. Stephen are all capable of beating each other on any given night.

Willmar is a winning team in the Central Lakes Conference playing out of Section 2AAA this year. Monticello is another program in Section 8AAA that many CLC teams might not see in the regular season, but the Magic is 8-3 and seeded among the top five teams in the field right now through the QRF on Minnesota-scores.net.

“There’s a lot of parity. I would never discount Alexandria,” Kuehlwein said. “They’re playing good, but I think they lose a little bit when (McGrane) gets in the back row. That’s my opinion because she does so much. She’s so good, but sometimes you do too much when you get in the back row. They’re a good team.”

Alexandria sophomore Tessa McGrane follows the ball from the back row during the Cardinals' conference and section match against Brainerd on Thursday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria sophomore Tessa McGrane follows the ball from the back row during the Cardinals' conference and section match against Brainerd on Thursday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Alexandria had a challenging stretch of matches against Willmar, Moorhead and now the Warriors. The Cardinals went 1-2 in the last week, and have an idea of where they stand and what they need to improve on as the season enters the final few weeks before playoffs.

“I think there’s a lot of teams in the hunt,” Byrne said. “On any given night, I think it can go either way. (Brainerd) is a good team, but we didn’t play how we have the last couple matches.”

BRAINERD 3, ALEXANDRIA 1

(25-21, 25-16, 25-27, 25-21)

ALEXANDRIA - Tessa McGrane - 1 ace, 15 digs; Meg Shercliffe - 2 aces, 13 digs; Madison Herd - 1 block assist, 1 dig; Lilly Thul - 3 kills, 1 block assist, 1 dig; Maggie Anderson - 1 ace, 6 kills, 1 block assist, 18 digs; Erika Roderick - 1 ace, 2 kills, 39 assists, 10 digs; Ella Grove - 16 kills, 1 block, 2 digs; Mia McGrane - 2 aces, 18 kills, 1 block assist, 35 digs; Micaela Nelson - 2 assists