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Section 3A volleyball: Minneota rules; T-M-B's future must wait

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Tracy-Milroy-Balaton Panther Kassidy Przymus (7) goes high for a spike during Saturday night’s Section 3A volleyball championship in Marshall.

MARSHALL — The emotions that swirled among members of the Tracy-Milroy-Balaton volleyball team in the second game of their Section 3A championship match with Minneota Saturday night gave way to a settled conviction after the final point of the fourth and final game had been made. The Panthers, in accepting their silver medals, knew they had given the favored Vikings a legitimate scare. They knew they had given it their all, and if they weren’t quite good enough this time, they also knew that the age-old sports adage applied most favorably to them.

Just wait until next year.

Minneota defeated Tracy-Milroy-Balaton 3-1 on the gym floor of Southwest State University on Saturday, winning on scores of 25-18, 21-25, 25-18 and 25-22. It comes as no surprise that the Vikings, who are 29-3 on the 2013 season, will make their fifth straight trip to the state tournament. It will probably surprise no one next year if the Panthers make that same trip.

One eighth-grader, three freshmen, two sophomores and three juniors make up the nine-person roster of the 2013 Panthers. There is not a single senior among them. So after the dust had settled Saturday night, a few scattered sobs soon gave way to smiles — self-satisfied smiles over a hard-fought final and the promise of 2014.

If there’s one player who symbolizes Tracy-Milroy-Balaton’s energetic spirit, it may be its 5-3 junior libero, Anna Peterson, whose vocal encouragements and brilliant floor coverage helped lift her team to that 25-21 second-game victory. After the match was over, Peterson acknowledged that T-M-B considered itself the underdog Saturday. But that only inspired the Panthers more.

“We knew how good they were. We knew their strengths. We just played our hardest. We left everything out there on the court,” she said.

After a first game that seemed almost routine, Tracy-Milroy-Balaton shook up the script in the second game. In the first game, Minneota’s hard-hitting offensive brilliance kept the Panthers in a secondary role, but as in Game Two wore on and the Panthers held their own, they began to assert themselves more. A Kassidy Przymus ace kill, then a Sammie Gervais service ace moved the Panthers out to a 13-10 lead. Emotions began to take over, the Vikings relinquished the initiative, and the Panthers —aided further by some impressive saves to keep Minneota’s hardest kills from hitting the floor — found reason to believe they could pull off an upset. Another Gervais ace brought the Panthers close to victory, at 23-20, and a Jessie Nelson kill made it 24-21. The final point came in a Minneota serve into the net. T-M-B had evened the match at 1-1.

The second game, Peterson said, “kind of gave us some hope.”

The hope eventually gave way to reality. Minneota fought back against the Panthers’ upset-minded emotions to win games three and four. But for the Vikings, their championship seemed not so much a thrill as a relief.

Minneota head coach Stephanie Hennen said she felt the pressure of being the favorite.

“T-M-B, they’re young. They had absolutely nothing to lose,” she said.

“They are something. They are something,” Hennen repeated. “I’m very impressed with them.”

Peterson, too, smiled when reminded that no teammates will graduate from her team. “We’re a very young team this year. I didn’t really expect to come this far this year. We really worked hard,” she said.

And next year?

Peterson smiled some more. “I think we’ll be back here,” she said.

Till next year, however, the floor belongs to the Vikings. Tracy-Milroy-Balaton set them back on their heels momentarily during Game Two, but they recovered to win a tight Game Three and maintained their composure throughout the fourth game to bring home a victory. The Vikings are led by 5-11 junior hitter Taylor Reiss, but there are more hard-hitting Vikings where Reiss comes from. Too many of them, in fact, for most teams to withstand for long.

Going into the third game, Hennen said, she made a pointed statement to her players.

“I said, ‘Is that really the best you can do?’ And I added, ‘Because I don’t believe it is. And I think you know that, too.’”

Minneota worked out to a 7-4 lead in the third game and maintained a slim lead throughout. Upset-minded emotions returned to T-M-B late in the game as the Panthers pulled to within 20-18. But the Vikings held firm.

The fourth game was also tight. T-M-B scored the first point but soon fell behind, 4-1. Minneota fought to a 16-10 lead, saw it wittled to 16-13 on a Przymus service ace, then wittled further to 19-18. But the Panthers were unable to pull even. A Reiss ace kill put it 23-20 in Minneota’s favor. Moments later, another Reiss kill made the score 24-21. A Megan Larson block secured the winning point.

Reiss finished with 22 kills for the Vikings. Molly Hennen had 10. Larson and Shelby Corbin both had eight. Hennen was 18-for-18 serving with two aces, and Reiss was 21-for-21 with three aces. Larson had 32 set assists.

Peterson’s relentlessly inspired back-row performance helped her account for 19 digs. Gabby Gervais had 41 set assists for the Panthers, and Nelson added two ace blocks. Tracy-Milroy-Balaton was balanced in its attacking, with Nelson leading the way with 12 kills. Sydney Lanoue, Sammie Gervais and Przymus all had 10. Sara Stoneberg had six.

T-M-B head coach Katie Gervais was pleased with her team’s determined effort.

“I think we came out feeling like we had nothing to lose,” she said of her squad, which finished the season with a 21-13 record. “And the girls left nothing out there.”

The second game was key.

“We just talked about getting a flow for the game,” Gervais said. “I think we played great defensively. We had some really good defensive plays. I just think that we controlled the tempo, which I never thought I’d say for Minneota.”

And what about next year?

“I think now that they’ve experienced the tournament atmosphere — now that they know they can do it, I think that gives them a boost of confidence,” she said.

Minneota will open state Class A tournament competition Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Also competing there in the Class AA tournament will be the Marshall Tigers, who defeated Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta 3-0 Saturday at Southwest State University to win the Section 3AA crown. The Tigers are two-time defending state champions.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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