Watertown-Mayer knocks off neighbor Delano Thursday night for the Section 5AA championship; Royals to taking first trip to state since 2000
RICHFIELD — Sitting in an hour’s worth of rush-hour traffic to play town rival Delano Thursday night was well worth it for Watertown-Mayer volleyball fans, who were grandly rewarded for their time by the Royals, who survived the Tigers in five sets to win the Section 5AA championship and the rite to play in the Class AA state tournament next weekend.
“It’s awesome. I’ve always dreamed about this, since I started high school volleyball. It was just great to accomplish this with my team. We all worked together and had fun,” said Royals freshman outside hitter Paige Thibault, who led everybody with 15 kills. “We were a little upset that we had to make the long drive, but it was definitely worth it. This is awesome.”
The trip to the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield was well worth it, as Royals nation is now headed to the Xcel Energy Center to play in the state tournament for the first time in 17 seasons, when head coach Andrea Raser was a senior on the team in 2000.
That the match between the Royals and Tigers was so tightly contested and went to five sets came as a surprise to nobody.
Watertown-Mayer coach Andrea Raser sees a lot of similarities in the team she played on at state and the one she will coach at state.
“That was a team like this one. We didn’t care who we were playing, we just played for each other and wanted it more for our teammates and ourselves,” the coach explained. “That’s why we were successful, and that’s why these girls are successful. They truly want it just as bad for their teammates as for themselves.
“It’s good to be a part of it again.”
The Royals plan on being more than just a part of the state tournament once they take the court Thursday, Nov. 9.
“No, no, absolutely not,” the coach answered when asked if her team is just happy to be at state. “They are competitive enough that now we need to prepare for the next step. Each step at a time. Conference champs, section champs, and we are going to go for it. We have nothing to lose. Nobody sees us coming. We are on nobody’s radar, and that is to our advantage.”
Watertown-Mayer should be on the radar of opposing teams, as they enter the state tournament with a 22-7 record.
That 22nd win was the section-championship win over Delano, but, early on, it appeared the Tigers (17-13) might be on the fast track to the state tournament.
On the court, the fifth set greatly contrasted the first.
The Royals looked as if they were waking up from a nap at the start, dropping the first set 25-15 to a highly-energized Tiger team that had plenty of vocal support from a Hawaii-themed student section. Watertown-Mayer found some energy in the middle three sets, and completely dominated the fifth set 15-6 to put the Tigers away.
“Pride,” said Raser of her initial reaction when the ball hit the floor on the final point. “I am proud of how hard the girls have worked to get here.”
In between the first and fifth sets, Watertown-Mayer tied the match score at 1-1 with a 25-21 win in the second set, and took a 2-1 lead with a 25-23 win in set three.
Facing elimination, Delano stayed alive and forced the do-or-die fifth set with a 25-20 in the fourth.
“We anticipated it because we played Delano before and we knew they were a really good team,” Thibault said of the fifth set. “We are kind of evenly-matched.”
Coming back after a forgetful first set and after Delano won the fourth set showed Raser a lot about her team.
“There was a gut-check. They were nervous, but, deep down, they knew this was meant to be for them,” she said. “They showed me they have guts and resiliency and heart and fire. Everything you know is in them, they let it out tonight.”
All that fire and resiliency completely overtook the Tigers, who were hoping to ride the wave of the fourth-set win into the fifth.
“Going from the fourth set, I thought we had the momentum but we had to keep rowing with it,” said Delano coach Becca Rue, who was looking for a sixth state appearance in her 11 seasons with the Tigers. “It didn’t happen. Sometimes, that’s the way it goes with high school sports.”
The Royals took a 4-1 lead in the fifth set before the Tigers knew what hit them, and there was no catching up for Delano.
“We tried to stay up and have a good attitude during the whole thing, and I think we did, but it was just kind of the domino effect (in the fifth set),” said Delano senior Amy Lundquist, who finished with a team-best 12 kills, which came on 39 spike attempts.
The fifth set, which is played to 15 points instead of 25 like the first four, can be tough to play, according to Rue.
“You work your tails off for the first four and then going to 15 is hard. If you get down, it’s hard to come back, you have to call early timeouts,” the coach said. “I just think they kind of had the momentum swing and we couldn’t get it back.”
Rue’s team entered the section final playing its best volleyball of the season. The Tigers were much-improved since their regular-season meeting with the Royals.
During the regular season, Watertown-Mayer defeated Delano in four sets Sept. 11 at the Tiger Activity Center in Delano.
“They changed a lot,” Thibault said of Delano. “They got more aggressive in their hitting and they were putting it in better spots and tipping a lot more. That kind of got us a few times, but we started to pick it up. We just pushed through and did what we do.”
Both coaches anticipated a five-set match.
“We knew they were a better team, and we knew they wanted revenge, and we knew it was going to go to five, and we knew it was going to be many battles in the war,” said Raser. “We were ready for it.”
Rue predicted the same.
“We knew going in it was probably going to be a battle, which is what you want in a section championship. I think it definitely turned out to be a great match for everybody who came,” she said. “It is just kind of a bummer there has to be someone that loses, and that somebody was us this time.”
On the stat sheet, junior setter Nikki McDonald finished with 38 assists for the Royals. Janessa Berrios joined Thibault in the double-digit kills column, the junior finishing with 14. And Thibault (12), McDonald (11), Kylie Hoese (11) and Ellie Ernhardt (10) all dug in double digits.
For Delano, junior setter Brynn Heinonen finished with 36 assists. Grace Popp had 10 kills. Kenzie Cayler and Mya Johnson both finished with 20 digs.
The serve and serve-receive games from both teams were not at their best.
Delano gave away 11 free points on service errors and hit 10 aces against the Royals. Watertown-Mayer committed 13 service errors and connected for 11 aces against the Tigers.
The Royals used a faulty service receive game from the Tigers to completely turn around the second set.
In that second set, with Delano leading 21-19, Watertown-Mayer’s Vanessa Schroeder served the final seven points to give the Royals the win. The Tigers committed errors on four-of-five serves at one point in that stretch.