The Alexandra volleyball team was not in the preseason rankings in the Class 3A field, but the Cardinals worked their way into the Sept. 12 coaches’ association poll with six straight wins to start the season.

Tuesday was a chance to definitively make a statement, and Alexandria proved it can play right with a top team in its class.

Willmar (7-3) came to Alexandria ranked fourth in those same Class AAA polls. Their only losses were to top-ranked Marshall in the season opener and at a deep Shakopee Tournament this past weekend where they went 2-2.

In front of an energized crowd, both teams played back and forth before Willmar rallied from a 2-1 deficit by winning the fourth set 25-21 and the fifth set 15-11.

Alexandria junior Charlotte Lempka puts down an emphatic kill just right of the outstretched arms of Willmar's Mackenzie Knofcyznski on Sept. 14, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)
Alexandria junior Charlotte Lempka puts down an emphatic kill just right of the outstretched arms of Willmar's Mackenzie Knofcyznski on Sept. 14, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

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“You need a lot of grit to play a team like that,” Alexandria senior Addie Boesl said. “They’re super smart. They know where to place the ball where the defense isn’t. You just basically need all the grit you can give, and you have to have the mentality that you can’t let anything touch the floor. Don’t let anything touch the floor and keep serving tough at them.”

Alexandria (6-1) controlled much of the first set before Willmar did the same throughout the second to even things up at 1-1. That set the stage for an intense third set.

Trailing 24-21, Alexandria rallied off three straight points to tie it at 24. An unforced error gave Willmar the lead back 25-24 before senior Maggie Anderson’s emphatic kill tied it for Alexandria again. An ace by freshman Hadley Thul made it 26-25, and a kill attempt by Willmar’s Sydney Schnichels went just wide of the line for a 27-25 win for Alexandria.

“We reassure each other that the team is there and we have each other’s backs,” Alexandria senior libero Tessa McGrane said of playing through the momentum shifts. “Don’t pay attention to the crowd and all the noise outside the game. That keeps us focused and in control.”

The match seemed destined to go to a fifth set, and Willmar made sure it did. They led 10-4 early in the fourth and never trailed from there on the way to a 25-21 win that was capped off with a Marissa Rosen kill.

From left to right, Willmar's Lydia Larson, Sydney Schnichels and Mackenzie Knofcyznski celebrate a Willmar point late in the first set during a matchup of two top-10 Class AAA teams in Alexandria on Sept. 14, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)
From left to right, Willmar's Lydia Larson, Sydney Schnichels and Mackenzie Knofcyznski celebrate a Willmar point late in the first set during a matchup of two top-10 Class AAA teams in Alexandria on Sept. 14, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

Rosen (6-feet), junior Sydney Schnichels (6-feet, 4-inches) and Mackenzie Knofczynski (6-feet) form a long and athletic front row for Willmar. Schnichels, who just recently made a verbal commitment to the University of Minnesota for volleyball, had 21 kills, while Rosen added 14.

Alexandria did its best to try to make the smart play up front on deciding whether to kill or tip against the Willmar block. They caught Willmar out of position multiple times with tips that ended in points.

“When we were in system, our hitters did great and they executed the game plan,” Alexandria head coach Mary Byrne said. “I was very happy with that. It’s just when we don’t get the pass and we’re out of system, we have to show our composure and manage the ball and do a little bit better. That experience is going to help us. We have some young kids out there. Defensively, they played their hearts out. We just need to tighten up the block and work on our serve receive.”

Byrne said Alexandria just had too many unforced errors to beat a talented team like Willmar.

“We’re a better team than that. We just didn’t pull it out tonight,” Byrne said. “That’s on us. Not to take anything away from them. It was a great match, but looking at our stats and just watching the match, we made too many errors out of system. We just need to take care of the ball and play great defense, but there were lots of great rallies. It’s the first time we’ve been tested this season. Proud of how we played and really showed what we need to get better at.”

The Alexandria student section erupts after a kill by the Cardinals during a matchup between the 10th-ranked Alexandria and 4th-ranked Willmar volleyball teams at Alexandria Area High School on Sept. 14, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)
The Alexandria student section erupts after a kill by the Cardinals during a matchup between the 10th-ranked Alexandria and 4th-ranked Willmar volleyball teams at Alexandria Area High School on Sept. 14, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

Win or lose, both teams got to play in an electric atmosphere in front of many fans and a boisterous student section on each side. These two teams won’t play each other again this season with Willmar playing out of Section 2-3A and Alexandria in Section 8-3A, but this was the type of environment both teams can expect in a deep playoff match.

“This game brought me back to the Monticello game a few years back,” McGrane said. “It’s just an adrenaline rush. Just the excitement. Everyone shows their love for the game during matches like these, and it’s just so fun.”

McGrane said it’s a match where they showed what they're capable of against another good team, while Boesl said they will learn a lot from it even in defeat.

Willmar now has the upper hand in the race for a Central Lakes Conference title with Alexandria, but the Cardinals will shift focus and try to build off the lessons from a close loss as they go on the road to Brainerd on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m.

“Some things need to happen now for us to accomplish a goal of winning conference,” Byrne said. “That’s tough, but we can’t worry about that. We have to take care of us. We have Brainerd next, and that’s another outstanding team, so we have our work cut out for us.”

WILLMAR 3, ALEXANDRIA 2

(19-25, 25-17, 25-27, 25-21, 15-11)

ALEXANDRIA UNOFFICIAL STATS - Kills - Maggie Anderson - 8; Kiya Issendorf - 8; Charlotte Lempka - 5; Lilly Thul - 2; Hadley Thul - 9; Maddi Buysse - 4; Aces - Addie Boesl - 2; Cora Larson - 3; Kiya Issendorf - 1; Tessa McGrane - 2; Blocks - Charlotte Lempka - 8; Lilly Thul - 2; Addie Boesl - 2; Kiya Issendorf - 2; Hadley Thul - 1; Maggie Anderson - 1; Maddie Buysse - 2; Assists - Kiya Issendorf - 21; Tessa McGrane - 2

WILLMAR - Serving (aces): Marissa Rosen 5, Mackenzie Knofczynski 4, Sydney Schnichels 3, Hannah Stark 2, Allie Rosendahl 2, Lydia Larson 1 … Set assists: Larson 44, Stark 3, Knofczynski 2, Schnichels 1 … Hitting (kills): Schnichels 21, Rosen 14, Knofczynski 9, Dena Mathison 3, Bella Mulder 3, Stark 1 … Blocking (aces): Knofczynski 2, Mathison 1, Schnichels 1 … Digs (5 or more): Schnichels 28, Rosendahl 17, Rosen 16, Stark 14, Larson 12, Knofczynski 9.