MARSHALL – During Saturday’s Section 3AA volleyball championship match, Minnewaska’s coaching staff wore black t-shirts with the team motto, "Start unknown, finish unforgettable,” written on the back.
With 10 losses during the regular season, the Lakers’ journey through the postseason has been undoubtedly unforgettable. Vanquishing the top three seeds in the north side of the bracket without dropping a single set, the No. 6 seed reached its first section final since 1998 and was in search of the program’s first-ever trip to the state tournament.
Unfortunately for Minnewaska, awaiting the team on Saturday was a powerhouse.
Marshall, last year’s state runner-up and the top-seed in the south end of the bracket, came into the championship winners of 15 out of its last 16 matches.
While the Lakers showed that they were game to compete, the heavy favorite was far too strong. The Tigers punched their ticket back to the state tournament following a 3-0 sweep over Minnewaska, 25-20, 25-15, 25-19 on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University.
“You now just created a ripple effect,” Lakers head coach Michele Johnson told her team after the match. “What you just accomplished will carry way beyond their time and they will be able to come back and say they were a part of the new tradition.”
The victors certainly have a tradition of their own. Earning their 29th trip to the big dance, Marshall advanced to state for the third consecutive season. With the exception of 2015, it has gone to the tournament every year this decade.
“That’s been the goal all year for this group,” Tigers head coach Dan Westby said. “We’re happy that they get another chance at it. Knowing them the way that I do, I got to imagine that they are going to go up there and they are going to be ready to go. We’re always happy for the kids when they get this opportunity.”
Scoring the first three points of the match, Minnewaska later regained the advantage in the first set when a pair of sprawling saves gave senior middle hitter Ellie Danielson a chance to return from behind the service line. When Marshall couldn’t return it back, the visitors on the scoreboard went in front 10-9 to a standing ovation from its fans in the stands.
From then, the Lakers played from behind, but mounted charges to tie the frame on four separate occasions. A successful attack from junior middle hitter Avery Hoeper knotted the opening set at 19-19. However, Marshall produced six of the final seven points to capture the set.
A key element of Minnewaska’s game plan was to utilize its length to put up a suffocating block at the net. At times sending back Tiger attacks twice within long rallies, the Lakers forced one of the best offenses in the state into several errors. Hoeper and Danielson, along with senior setter Sara Geiser and senior outside hitter Emma Thorfinnson, were responsible for eight of the team’s nine blocks.
“We did really well against their offense,” Thorfinnson said. “I thought our blocking was very strong and our defense was pretty good.”
Minnewaska held a slim 8-7 cushion in the second set, before the Tigers finally got in gear. With a kill and block from junior outside hitter Jordyn Hilgemann, as well as a kill from junior middle hitter Emily Meier, Marshall scored eight of the next nine points.
“The first set, we just had too many errors. I think we were playing a little timid,” said Hilgemann, who had a team-high 14 kills, 12 digs and two serve aces. “So the second set, our confidence got up and that helped us a lot. And then we just started swinging more. The first set, a lot of balls didn’t go our way, but in the second set, when we starting swinging and getting kills, it worked out in our favor.”
“I thought offensively, we played a lot faster in set two and thought that was kind of the difference,” Westby added.
Capped by a pair of kills from middle hitter Paige Andries, Marshall held a 10-5 lead in the third set before Minnewaska fought back. Hoeper and Thorfinnson combined for back-to-back blocks to help close the deficit to 12-11. The Tigers pushed to a 16-11 advantage ad as much as a 20-14 before consecutive Thorfinnson kills started a 5-1 Lakers surge. They would get as close as 21-19, but two Hilgemann kills and an ace from senior defensive Mia Schnaible closed out the match.
“I think we truly, truly played about as well as we could and we came in prepared, but again, here comes a team that hasn’t been here for 21 years against a team that’s always here,” Johnson said. “If you look at that perspective, you have to give a lot of kudos to Minnewaska for just holding its composure and continuing to fight. And of course, Marshall is that (benchmark) team and they will do what Marshall does.”
Schnaible ended the night with a match-high 24 digs while senior setter Rachel Schwartz led the winners with 22 assists. Andries chipped in 13 kills for the Tigers.
Danielson connected with a team-best 14 kills while Geiser dished out 20 assists. With a Lakers-high 14 digs, Hoeper was one of four players on Minnewaska with at least 10. She also paced the team with three blocks. Thorfinnson, who is one of five seniors on the team, ended her evening with 13 digs, five kills, and 2 1/2 blocks.
“We made school history,” Thorfinnson said. “We haven’t done this in 21 years. It’s awesome, words can’t describe how (proud) I feel.”