Minnewaska was projected as a one-and-done team.
The No. 6 seed in Section 3AA-North, the Lakers kept pulling off upsets over No. 3 Eden Valley-Watkins, then No. 2 Redwood Valley.
And then on Thursday against top-seeded New London-Spicer, Minnewaska exuded the confidence of a high-seeded team en route to a sweep of the Wildcats, 28-26, 25-21, 25-23. Not only have the Lakers won three straight postseason matches, but all three have come in clean sweeps.
“Not even during our season did we think this would happen,” said Lakers senior middle hitter Ellie Danielson. “Our focus has changed and it’s now or never. We want this. And you can tell we want it the most.”
With the victory, the Lakers will play for the Section 3AA championship against South champion Marshall at 6 p.m. Saturday at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.
“They’re learning to trust each other and they’re learning how to play defense,” Minnewaska head coach Michele Johnson said about her team’s postseason success. “They’ve definitely been a very offensive team and now they’re learning to play defense and nothing drops. And they just believe; they have that confidence and they believe.”
Prior to Thursday’s match, the Minnewaska players were studious in how to break the NLS defense, watching plenty of game video. As the study session continued, it became obvious that the Wildcats play the same kind of defense as the Lakers do.
“It was like, where do we get beat and how do we beat them,” said Danielson, who finished with 19 kills, three blocks, seven digs and an ace serve.
When Minnewaska trailed 16-8 in the first set, Avery Hoeper and Ellie Danielson kept finding zones to hit on the floor, tying the set at 17-all and eventually taking a 20-19 lead after a block.
“We could feel (the momentum) change completely,” Hoeper said. “Someone rose up every time. Someone would make a play and that helped the team a lot.”
Then with back-to-back kills from Danielson and a Wildcats' swing going out of bounds, Minnewaska left NLS stunned with a 1-0 lead.
“We were rattled all night, in all three sets,” said NLS head coach Erin Schoumaker. “I couldn’t get them to calm down.”
With the momentum clearly on their side, the Lakers responded from a 4-1 deficit early in the second with six straight points to take a 7-4 lead. They never trailed in the set again.
Leading 23-18 in what would be the final set, the Wildcats finally showed some fight and tied it at 23-all.
“There wasn’t any panic,” Hoeper said. “We just had to settle down and play our game.”
Minnewaska was quick to shut that down as Hoeper slapped down a free ball for a kill and Alexis Piekarski spiked the ball for the game-clinching point.
“It was like a total dream,” Danielson said. “It was amazing.”