The Alexandria volleyball team was going to learn something about itself one way or another during its last match of the regular season on Tuesday night.
The Cardinals hosted a one-loss Sartell-St. Stephen team that had already beat Alexandria 3-1 on Sept. 5. The Sabres are 18-1 and have a likely lock on the top seed in Section 8AAA with the No. 4 QRF rank in the state through Minnesota-scores.net. Win or lose, this would be a good test for the Cardinals, and what they found out in a 3-0 sweep by the Sabres is that they needed to bring a whole different energy level than some of their previous matches.
“My biggest takeaway is you have to play with heart in games like this,” senior setter Erika Roderick said. “When you’re playing that good of a team, you can’t just play average and expect to win. You all have to be playing as a team and going all out. We weren’t playing as one unit.”
That’s a message that head coach Mary Byrne shared with her team after the match. The Cardinals (14-11) had won seven of their last eight heading into Tuesday, including a 3-1 showing on Saturday that won them their home tournament.
“I’m not so disappointed in the loss as much as I’m disappointed that we didn’t show the heart that we showed on Saturday in our tournament and the heart we were playing with the last half of the season,” Byrne said. “We let them get to us, and we didn’t play our game. That’s what I’m disappointed in.”
Alexandria stuck with the Sabres for much of the first two sets, but Sartell was the team that finished.
Set one was a 22-21 score before the Sabres rattled off the next three points to win 25-21. It was a similar story in the second set when Alexandria cut its deficit to 17-16. The Sabres responded out of a timeout to win 25-20 ahead of controlling the third set 25-16.
“We can play them close,” Byrne said. “We need to get to the next level and execute when it comes down to crunch time. We don’t have that quite yet. We’ve got to find some leadership, some go-to players like Sartell has and then we’ll get there.”
The Sabres have some options at the net, led by a couple of 5-foot, 11-inch juniors in Elizabeth Dille and Katelyn Hammer.
Hammer had nine kills, and senior Gretta Mahowald had eight, but Dille was the catalyst when Sartell needed a kill. Her ability to rise above the block helped her lead all players with 18 kills, including a handful in the first couple sets when Alexandria was keeping things close.
“You just try to get in the way of her strengths,” Byrne said of Dille. “We had her frustrated at times. She made some errors that you don’t typically see from her, but she’s a great player. I give Sartell a lot of credit. They’ve had a really great season and they’re doing a really nice job.”
The Sabres’ length also creates a strong block defensively. Roderick was in charge of reading that block and trying to put her hitters in the best position. Senior Mia McGrane had a team-high 14 kills, and sophomore Maggie Anderson added 11.
“I always look at the block, and I will set the person with the smallest block, but if that person is having an off night, I’ll go to the person who is having a good night,” Roderick said of attacking Sartell’s defense. “Maggie tonight was having a really good night, so I kept setting her even when she was in the back row. But when the setter is in the front row, setters aren’t usually as good of a blocker, so I was setting outside more.”
Sartell is the kind of team that Alexandria will see if it wants to make a deep run into the playoffs. The Cardinals came into the night with the sixth-best QRF rank of the 12 teams in the 8AAA field. After the Sabres, the field looks wide open on paper. Moorhead, the second-ranked team in the section through the QRF, entered Tuesday with a 10-7 record.
“This is a really good match to get us ready for what playoffs will look like,” Roderick said of facing Sartell in the regular-season finale. “Looking into the playoffs, we’re just going to have to play unified and everyone has to play their hearts out. It can’t be one or two people. It has to be the entire team working together.”
The Cardinals have some time to prepare for the start of the tournament. The section is seeded by a coaches vote on Oct. 20 before the first round of matches on Oct. 23.
After a 14-win regular season with some ups and downs, Alexandria is looking to fine tune some things with a lot of practice time between now and then.
“We need to rest up a little bit, and we need to fix some things on the court,” Byrne said. “We have time to make sure we get after it. We do have some scrimmage opportunities left as well, so we’re in good shape going into the playoffs.”