There is a reason Bethlehem Academy coach Franz Boelter makes his team battle through one of the toughest schedules in the state. That reason stared the Cardinals in the face midway through the third set of the Class 1A championship match against Southwest Christian.
After easing through their first two matches without dropping a set, the Cardinals trailed the Stars 13-4 midway through the third. With the teams already tied at a set apiece, it was this one was not going to be easy.
"That's a good team over there," Boelter said. "Some of the things they did surprised us."
The Cardinals responded when needed, relying on air-tight defense and collective volleyball IQ to rally past the Stars 25-20, 18-25, 25-22, 25-22 for their sixth Class 1A state championship since 2003 and third in the last four years.
"We knew we had to kick it into high gear," said senior middle hitter Maddie Borwege, who paced the Cardinals with 25 kills.
The Cardinals leaned on their cornerstone defense, making the Stars work even harder just to keep points alive. As it had so often this season, the approach worked. Bethlehem Academy, a Faribault Catholic school of 195 students, wrested the momentum from Southwest Christian by scoring 10 of 11 points, turning a 13-4 deficit into a 15-14 lead.
"They just made their defense that much better," said Greg Sayuk, whose Stars were playing in their first state championship match. "You really have to work for your points against them."
The teams came into the game with 17 combined losses, but that was a reflection of scheduling, each frequently playing larger schools in hope that tough regular-season matchups would translate into postseason victories.
"That prepared us so much for this and everything we were going to see," Borwege said. "We weren't nervous at all. We just wanted to get out and play."
That experience was evident from the outset. Great plays were frequent, unforced errors few.
After rallying for the crucial third-set victory, the Cardinals took control in the final set, breaking a 16-16 tie by scoring six of the next seven points.
"This never gets old," said senior outside hitter Jessie Mathews, her eyes red from crying following the final match of her high school career. "This is special."