ST. PAUL — At the start of the Class A state tournament, Waterville-Elysian-Morristown coach Crystal Lamont issued her team a directive.
Before any of the Buccaneers started to think about potential results, they needed to focus on an identity centered around its defensive intensity. With the bevy of blocks, digs and elongated points, wins would follow.
Through the first day, that philosophy has worked, with second-seeded WEM racing to a 25-11, 25-21, 25-18 sweep in the Class A quarterfinals against unseeded Henning on Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“We talked about it coming into this that we wanted to be the best defensive team in the state and that’s the mindset we have,” Lamont said. “Nothing’s going to score on us and we’re going to do our best to make it as hard as possible for the other team to get a point.”
Amid the lunging saves, the entirety of WEM (33-2) was involved in keeping the ball off its own half of the floor. Junior Toryn Richards paced the effort with a team-high 13 digs, although she was supported by senior Delaney Donahue (10), junior Kylie Pittman (nine), junior Ellie Ready (nine), junior Allison Rients (five), junior Autumn Taylor (four), junior Lindsey Condon (three) and senior Trista Hering (three).
Hering also led the defensive block at the net, accumulating a solo block and three block assists, while Richards, Condon and Ready all picked up a block assist.
“We take a lot of pride in how we’re able to come back from one dig,” Richards said. “We’re such a scrappy team we can always get a good kill off of one of those.”
“You can see frustration in the other team,” Hering added. “That’s when you just have to keep playing your game and play one point at a time and play together and keep the pressure on.”
From the start of the match, that defensive effort frustrated Henning (24-8), which connected on only 30 of its 111 attack attempts, compared to 41 out of 106 attempts for WEM.
“We’re used to being in control of offense from start to finish,” Henning coach Kristy Finck said. “We knew they were good coming in because they beat the No. 1 team in the state, Mayer Lutheran, and they were in control of the offense pretty much from start to finish.”
Of course, all the defense led to offense for the Buccaneers, who were led by 13 kills from Richards but also received nine kills apiece from Hering and Donahue, in addition to eight kills from Pittman.
That offense ran mostly uninhibited, with only 13 attacking errors throughout the match.
“In the beginning of the year we kind of held back on attacking and throughout the season we’ve just gotten so much better at that,” Richards said. “We know how to attack the ball, not just by hitting it but by pushing it, rolls — we’ve just gotten so much better as a team on our attacks.”
In many ways, that attack was hardened by competition. In addition to a pair of matches with Class A No. 1 Mayer Lutheran, which WEM topped in five sets in the Section 2A finals to reach the state tournament, the Buccaneers battled a pair of Class AA state qualifiers in Concordia Academy and Belle Plaine.
Lamont said as the tournament progresses, starting with a match against third-seeded Medford at 3 p.m. Friday in the semifinals, that experience will continue to carry her team. Medford reached the semis with a quarterfinal sweep of Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, and has lost three times already this year against WEM.
“We set it up five or six years ago and every year it gets tougher,” Lamont said. “I feel like this was our toughest schedule. We were able to get some non-conference matches with Concordia Academy and Belle Plaine, two teams that are in the state tournament in double-A. It just helps prepare you for those big moments. We had a five-set match with Belle Plaine earlier in the year so we could learn to overcome the adversity in that match and keep pushing.”