SLEEPY EYE - It was clear right from the beginning of Friday's playoff volleyball game between the host Sleepy Eye St. Mary's Knights and the Sleepy Eye Indians that neither team was going down without a fight.
The Indians came out with most of the early momentum, but in the end the Knights rallied for a 19-25, 25-18, 22-25, 25-19, 15-11 victory to advance to the second round of the Section 2A, North playoffs.
"Both teams were playing scrappy, neither team wanted to go home tonight," Sleepy Eye head coach Courtney Brey said. "That was great to see. I think it was just getting those extra little points here and there, or maybe coming off of the other team's errors, giving us an extra opportunity to score an extra point or two. It was a well-fought battle."
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s Jessica Schmitz (8) tips the ball over the net as Sleepy Eye’s Tia Cselovszki (11) sets up for a block during Section 2A North Sub-Section playoff action Monday at SESM.
Both sides routinely dug up even the strongest hits by the other team and made few errors, leading to a number of dramatic rallies throughout the night. The fourth and fifth sets each were closely contested, but St. Mary's held up under the pressure to hold slim leads throughout both sets.
"There were a lot of good hits that we had, and they were just digging it up," St. Mary's head coach Nicole Jensen said. "Both sides were playing defense well. I think a lot of it came down to serving. I guess we just always talk controlling the ball when it's on our side, and that was just kind of the difference in games four and five for us."
Sleepy Eye never trailed in the first set, with a stretch of three-straight points by Claire Krumbach (two kills and an ace block) handing the Indians a 16-10 lead that proved to be a vital cushion the rest of the way.
The visitors won perhaps the longest and most dramatic rally of the match to bring up set point at 24-15. However, the Knights fended off four-straight set points - two with kills by Deonna Brinkman - before Krumbach pounded a kill to give the Indians a 1-0 lead.
"We worked as a team and we played awesome," Sleepy Eye senior Sam Krebsbach said. "There was no everyone playing for themselves, we all played for each other."
Set two saw nine tied scores before St. Mary's pulled ahead for a 15-14 lead, at which point two-straight service aces by Brinkman proved to be a key turning point.
The Knights held a lead of at least two points the rest of the set, ending the set with a 6-1 run that included three kills by Jenna Hose, including on set point.
The second set included five of Becca Schmitz's match-high seven ace blocks, highlighting a solid blocking effort by both teams in the match.
In the third set, St. Mary's came out strong with a 3-0 opening run, but the Indians countered with a 9-0 stretch to take a commanding 9-3 lead.
St. Mary's later came back from a 19-12 deficit to tie the set at 22-22. The Knights benefitted when a 22-17 Sleepy Eye lead was changed to 21-18 after the call was reversed on a spike by St. Mary's senior Jessica Schmitz that was originally called wide.
Despite the Knights' rally, Sleepy Eye regrouped to win the final three points of the set - the final two on ace blocks by Krumbach - to take a 2-1 lead.
"We just had to get in their heads," Becca Schmitz said of the key for the Knights overcoming the 2-1 deficit. "Jessica and Deonna did a really good job hitting, and Maddy Helget - they did a good job of getting us up when we were down, and just hitting as hard as they could."
St. Mary's never trailed in the fourth set. An ace serve by the Indians' Miranda McMullen tied the score at 11-11, but the Knights maintained a narrow lead the rest of the way.
After a back-and-forth stretch that brought the score to 20-19, St. Mary's won the final five points to close out the set, with most of the points coming via errors by the Indians.
The final set lived up to the drama of the rest of the match, with neither side holding a lead of greater than one point until St. Mary's opened up a 9-7 lead following a kill by Brinkman.
After St. Mary's senior Jenna Hose had a serve sail wide to make the score 13-11, Jessica Schmitz earned a kill to bring up set point, which Brinkman converted on the next point with an ace serve that released the tension among the large home crowd and sent the gymnasium into a frenzy.
"We talked about coming out and we just had to give it all, or it was going to be done," Jensen said. "I know there were a lot of seniors that weren't willing to accept that - especially Maddy Helget, she kind of came out and led the team tonight. She was a big key to our success tonight."
Leading the way for the Knights were Bethany Berkner (36 set assists, four blocks, 18 digs), Brinkman (14 kills, five blocks), Helget (11 kills, 28 digs), Hose (seven kills) and Jessica Schmitz (seven kills).
Krumbach led the Indians with 14 kills and six blocks, with Krebsbach adding 11 kills and McMullen contributing 32 set assists and three ace serves.
The Indians end their season with a 4-17-1 record.
"I am super proud of our team, we came out ready to play," Brey said. "Yeah, we didn't end up on top, which is unfortunate, but after playing like that, you can't hang your head, you can't dwell on a game like this... Tonight the girls were so focused, and we had the support of every single person - everyone on our bench, all 14 of us it took to get to that fifth game, so it was really cool to see everyone come together."
The No. 7-seeded Knights (12-13-1) will face No. 2 BOLD in the second round, traveling to play at Olivia at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
"I do not know what to expect from BOLD - I know that they are the defending section champions, so they'll still be good," Jensen said. "We just need to play our game again - controlling the ball, that's the biggest key."