Clara Kniefel

Medford’s Clara Kniefel (4) rises above the net and in front of a pair of B-B-E players on Thursday evening during a Class A state quarterfinal match at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Tigers won, 3-0. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

ST. PAUL — A slow start in the opening set was just about the only thing that didn’t go right for the third-seeded Medford volleyball team on Thursday evening.

Because after that, it was pretty much all Tigers.

Gaining traction as the match moved along and burying unseeded Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa late, Medford secured a 3-0 (25-22, 25-18, 25-10) victory in the opening round of the Class A state tournament at the Xcel Energy Center.

The decisive sweep elevated the Tigers (25-8) into the state semifinals for the second consecutive season where they will meet long-time nemesis, W-E-M, on Friday at 3 p.m. on Court 1. The second-seeded Buccaneers (33-2) had little trouble with Henning in their quarterfinal match and will look to defeat the Tigers for the fourth time this season.

For MHS coach, Missy Underdahl, the key to pulling off the upset starts between the ears.

“I think the biggest thing is confidence going in,” Underdahl said during Thursday’s post-match press conference. “WEM is a team that is a big rival in the conference and they are a great program and can keep you guessing as to where they will put the ball. I think if we can just stay confident and not mentally break down, we will be OK. Because once one player mentally breaks down it’s kind of a domino effect. I believe that we have a great chance and can def beat them we just have to stay confident.”

If Medford plays anything like it did against the Jaguars — especially during the third set — it certainly has a puncher’s chance of knocking out the powerful Bucs. The Tigers trailed by four points out of the gates against B-B-E, slowly crawled back into the set before stitching together a 7-2 rally to create a comfortable advantage down the stretch in the opener.

In the second, the Tigers wiggled free from a 13-13 deadlock, built a 20-15 lead and coasted to the finish before quickly gaining rhythm and soaring to a 15-point win in the third.

“At the end of the second set our passes got a lot better,” Underdahl said. “I think in the first we had some nerves and a little excited. Yeah, we had been here last year but coming back it is still a lot of pressure coming in and a little different than what we were sitting at last season. We started doing a better job with our passes and then we were able to run our offense. We get them out of system and we just kept that going into the third set and I thought our defense did a good job of adjusting to their slides.”

Kinsey Cronin paced Medford with 15 kills, eight of which came in the pivotal opening stanza. Adjusting to the Jaguars’ defense as the match sped forward, the junior anchored the Tigers’ offense and found a variety of ways to make B-B-E pay above the net.

“I couldn’t do it without the defense and without Kiley (Nihart) back there and Morgan (Langeslag) getting me the ball,” Cronin said. “As good as it feels to get a kill, I know that I can’t do it without my teammates and without great outside hitters to pull the block so they don’t know which one to attack and block. I can’t do it without my team and I guess that’s the best part.”

After taking more than a month to get back to full strength following an early-season foot injury, senior Emma Kniefel played with a spunk and a level of focused-aggression on Thursday that helped give Medford a distinct edge on the big stage. She pounded 12 kills, registered one ace and added 12 digs.

“When I had the injury I wanted to get back as soon as possible and I think I probably pushed that too much and came back too soon,” Kniefel admitted. “I struggled right away but as the season moved along I got new orthotics in my shoes and it helped me a lot with support and then over time I did exercises and it helped me strengthen it. Probably halfway through the season it was fully recovered and then today I have no doubt, it’s perfect.”

Langeslag orchestrated the offense at setter and handed out 36 of the team’s 43 total assists while chipping in 14 digs. Izzy Reuvers led the back row with 15 digs and Nihart added 12.

The Jaguars (23-9), who entered the state tournament riding a 10-match winning streak, asserted themselves right away and registered six of the match’s first eight points to snatch a 6-2 lead. Ignited by a Cronin kill and capped by a pair of emphatic Kniefel spikes, the Tigers quickly drew within 6-5 and never allowed B-B-E to draw ahead by more than two points for the remainder of the set.

With the score tied 16-16, Medford went on a run and forced the Jaguars to burn a timeout after building a 21-17 lead. B-B-E stayed close and pulled with 23-22 before Cronin hammered a kill to end the threat. Less than 30 seconds later, the Tigers had a 1-0 lead.

“We started with nerves and once we got past those we were able to get back to playing confident and then we made some adjustments as well,” Underdahl said of closing out the opening set.

In other Class A action, top-seeded Minneota defeated Greenway, 3-0, and Fosston defeated Mounds Park Academy, 3-2.

Reach sports editor Jon Weisbrod at 444-2375, or follow him on Twitter.com @OPPJonW

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