In between the fourth and fifth sets Thursday night, the message for the Kenyon-Wanamingo volleyball team was clear.
All season, coach Tracy Erlandson has drilled the message of "Start fast and finish epic" into her team. With a spot in the Section 1A championship coming down to one last set to 15 points, it was time for Kenyon-Wanamingo to live up to its motto.
The third-seeded Knights did just that, leading wire-to-wire in the fifth set en route to finishing off a 14-25, 27-25, 15-25, 25-23, 15-11 victory against second-seeded Mabel-Canton in the Section 1A semifinals at the Rochester Mayo Civic Center.
“We always talk about starting strong and ending epic," Kenyon-Wanamingo senior Leah Berg said. "That really motivates us. Obviously in the other sets, we get down in the beginning and it doesn’t work out the best. When we start strong, it just really gives us a good way to keep pushing forward.”
In the first and third sets, the Knights fell behind big early and were never able to really threaten the Cougars, who hadn't lost in a regulation match all season entering Thursday night.
In the second, fourth and fifth sets, Kenyon-Wanamingo either built up a sizable early lead or maintained close enough contact with Mabel-Canton to allow for a late surge to propel itself in front.
The win was third win in five sets for the Knights in as many tries.
“This is the type of team, for real, this is what we do," Erlandson said. "Our biggest thing is we start strong, but we finish epic. I would definitely say we finished epic in this match, for sure.
“We have a tendency to dig ourselves some big holes and then decide we want to come back. We said that was our goal to not dig a hole. We’re over thinkers, and I always say, ‘Just react.’”
In the final two sets, the Knights reacted to what the Cougars were showing them. After Kenyon-Wanamingo's typically impenetrable block was relatively ineffective in the first three sets, it started to turn away Mabel-Canton attacks.
And when the Kenyon-Wanamingo bench noticed a hole opening down the lines against Mabel-Canton's block, it directed the hitters for the Knights to start swinging wide.
"We mixed them really well, we started to move them away from the blocks, we started going line," Erlandson said. "Our bench is great because they always watch the other side and then tell the hitters when they come off, ‘You can go line, you can go cross. The floor is open for you.’ The girls do a really good job of talking to each other.”
The set-winning points in the fourth and fifth frames were both the result of that in-game adjustment, with Berg — the right-side hitter — placing attacks down the line to first force a fifth set and then advance the Knights into the Section 1A final at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Rochester Mayo Civic Center against top-seeded Bethlehem Academy.
“It’s really nice that my team can depend on me to get a kill," Berg said. "Not crumbling under that pressure is something that I’ve been able to figure out how to do.”
Berg finished with 15 kills, while junior Tessa Erlandson led the Knights with 19 kills. Senior Stella Rechtzigel added seven kills, both of junior Josi Quam and sophomore Norah Rechtzigel finished with six kills and senior Julia Dahl tallied three kills.
Quam also dished out 34 assists, with freshman Carmen Nerison mixing in to provide 17 assists. Nerison also placed three aces, two of which came back-to-back to provide the Knights with a 22-21 lead in the second set. Stella Rechtzigel also tallied three aces, with Quam placing a pair as well.
Defensively, sophomore Rachel Ryan led Kenyon-Wanamingo with 28 digs, while Tessa Erlandson picked up 22 digs, Dahl provided 20 digs, Quam finished with 13 and Nerison notched 12. At the net, Norah Rechtzigel powered the late-arriving block with three block aces.
All that sets up Kenyon-Wanamingo for a rematch against top-seeded Bethlehem Academy, which swept Spring Grove in the other semifinal Thursday night. In the regular season, the Cardinals beat the Knights in four sets in a match that ultimately decided the Gopher Conference title.
Saturday morning they'll meet again with hardware on the line, and this time a trip to the Class A state tournament.
"This is something that we wanted to get to," Erlandson said. "We wanted to get back and face them again because we know we have to do what we have to do, and they have to do what they have to do. If we come out and just play and decrease our errors, we’ll be all right.”