ROCHESTER — From the valley of overwhelming frustration to the apex of unfiltered jubilation, the Medford and Kenyon-Wanamingo volleyball teams experienced the full spectrum of emotions Thursday night.
For the Knights, their rise began near the end of the third set when they side-stepped five match points and ended the game on an 8-0 rally to steal a 26-24 victory. Kenyon-Wanamingo maintained the momentum and breezed to an 8-point win in the fourth before building a dangerous 7-4 lead in the abbreviated fifth set.
And that’s when the Tigers made one final push.
Exiting a timeout hyper-focused and quickly leveling the score with a 3-0 spurt before settling into a see-saw affair down the stretch, Medford eventually broke free from a 15-15 deadlock with consecutive points to pull off the heart-pounding 3-2 (25-17, 25-19, 24-26, 17-25, 17-15) victory in the Sub-Section 1-A East championship at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester.
The thrilling decision sends the second-seeded Tigers into the Section 1-A championship round and ends the season for top-seeded Kenyon-Wanamingo.
The Knights finish with a 20-10 record in their first year since being reclassified from Section 2-AA. The program has won at least 20 matches in eight consecutive seasons.
Ally Peterson led the Knights with 25 kills while Julianna Boyum added 18. Madi Luebke dished out a team-high 37 assists.
The victory was the first of the year against a state-ranked opponent for Medford and was without a doubt its most exhilarating. Perhaps haunted by the echoes of their collapse in the third set, the Tigers failed to clinch another three match points in the fifth, but were given one final opportunity to wrap things up when they snatched a 16-15 lead after a Knights’ hitting error.
Apparently the eighth time was the charm.
After successfully receiving Kenyon-Wanamingo’s counter, the Tigers filtered the ball to Emma Kniefel high on the left side — and the senior didn’t miss. Taking a pass from setter Morgan Langeslag, the 5-foot-11 outside hitter rose above the net, spiked the ball off a K-W defender and watched as it spun harmlessly to the floor for the match-deciding point.
“I think it was both relief and excitement,” Medford coach Missy Underdahl said. “When that last ball went down I was just so excited for the girls. They have worked so hard.”
As much as the outcome hung in the balance down the stretch, the match appeared to be soaring in a completely different direction early on. Medford never trailed in the opening two sets and outscored the Knights 50-36 in the span. The Tigers shaped their 2-0 lead by simply staying within their system and thwarting a number of dangerous K-W attacks by teaming up for a number of key blocks. Alyvia Johnson came off the bench and smashed four of her 15 kills in the opening set while Kinsey Cronin posted five kills in the second.
“That is the best blocking that we have done all season,” Underdahl said of her team’s effort in the first two sets. “We transitioned really well and we got off the net and were making full approaches and we were hitting the ball down.”
The Tigers sustained their rhythm in the third, and despite trailing for the first time all match, stayed within striking distance before stitching together a 6-1 rally to mount a 24-18 lead. The Knights, though, seemed to catch Medford on their heels and exploded for eight unanswered points to close the set and draw within 2-1 overall.
Kenyon-Wanamingo scored first and jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the fourth and slowly pulled away, using a 12-7 spurt to jump ahead 16-10 before closing on a 9-7 run to draw even at 2-2.
“We were playing not to lose instead of playing to win,” Underdahl said. “They also cleaned up their passing and were able to run their offense in the third and fourth. We were trying to take away different players and it just seemed like every time we tried to adjust on defense, they reacted. You have to give them credit because they are a very good team. They are smart and talented. They started picking our defense apart and we tried a few things and everything was just a little too deep. We couldn’t hit that spot were the back row couldn’t get to it and their front row did.”
Perhaps a tad shell-shocked a still wobbly after having the carpet pulled from under its feet, Medford could only watch as the Knights manufactured a 7-2 rally to snatch their biggest lead of the match-deciding game at 7-4. Underdahl quickly called timeout and kept her message simple before sending her team back onto the floor: “Play your game.”
“We have fought too hard for this to end now,” Underdahl said. “I told them: ‘You guys deserve this and you need to go out there and run our offense and be aggressive.’
Medford took advantage of a few K-W mistakes directly after the break and knotted things up at 7-7 when Isabel DeLeon tapped the ball to an open spot on the floor for a kill.
The score didn’t surpass 2 points on either side for the duration of the match as Johnson, DeLeon and Cronin came up with huge kills before Kniefel finally put things away.
Cronin led the Medford offense with 21 kills while Morgan Langeslag paced the team with 30 assists. Kniefel added 18 kills and seven digs.
Izzy Reuvers and Kiley Nihart each recorded a team-high four aces and combined for 48 digs.