It had been a little over a month since Lakeville North had last played Eagan, a straight-set loss that was the second time this season the Panthers been defeated by Wildcats. They decided then it wouldn’t happen again.
Lakeville North made that vow a reality Saturday, defeating top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Eagan 25-20, 21-25, 25-20, 25-23 to win the Class 3A state championship. It’s the third Class 3A title for the Lakeville North program and first since 2012.
“Since we played them, we’ve put in the extra work and extra grit and developed even more as players,” senior middle hitter Kennedy Brady said. “We never let a practice go to waste.”
Too much Juhnke. Too much defense. And, in the end, too much momentum.
Lakeville North pulled off a mild surprise, defeating top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Eagan 25-20, 21-25, 25-20, 25-23 to win the Class 3A volleyball championship. It’s the third Class 3A title for the Lakeville North program, first since 2012.
Eagan, the two-time defending champion, had defeated Lakeville North twice during the season. But on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center, the Panthers proved to have an answer for everything the Wildcats tried.
Lakeville North’s commitment to front-row defense was evident from the outset. The Panthers put up a strong block behind Kennedy Brady, Macy Winter and Tori Thompson, forcing Eagan out of its system as the Wildcats looked for available hitting alleys.
“Every single one of us knew we had to give 100 percent of what we had left,” said Brady, a senior middle hitter. “We knew everything we had, had to go toward the ball, any which way to get the ball up. Every single person had the mindset that this ball is not going to drop.”
Meanwhile, Panthers junior Elizabeth Juhnke was soaring on the left side, putting monstrous swings on the ball that were too much for Eagan’s back row defense. The Panthers used a 7-1 run midway through the first set to establish control and rode that lead to a 25-20 first set victory. It was the first time a team had taken a set from Eagan in the entire tournament.
Juhnke had six kills in the first set and finished with a match-high 24 kills.
The Wildcats responded in the second set, rallying from a 12-8 deficit to win 25-21, evening the match at a set apiece.
But Lakeville North regained the lead in the third set, relentlessly setting Juhnke and playing airtight defense that frustrated Eagan. The Wildcats, unaccustomed to being defended so thoroughly, began making unforced errors and sitting back on their heels on defense.
Lakeville North won the third set 25-20 as Juhnke wouldn’t be denied on an attack, going up three times before she put it down.
By the time the fourth set rolled around, Lakeville North was operating smoothly, sending everything back, serving with accuracy and controlling Eagan’s attack.
Conversely, the Wildcats became prone to errors as they tried desperately to regain momentum. They pulled to within a point, 16-15, by leaning on their two best players, McKenna Melville and Kennedi Orr, but even that duo couldn’t withstand the Panthers’ tide of momentum.
“We lost balance,” Eagan coach Kathy Gillen said. “We didn’t have all of our hitters attacking as normal. When you have to go to a couple all the time, that helps them set up their defense.”
Eagan pulled ahead 22-20 in the fourth set, but Lakeville North stayed firm and pulled ahead 24-23. When Melville’s kill attempt landed just beyond the back line, the Panthers were champions again.
“They played outstanding. Every position, from serve receive to defense to outside hitters, they were spot-on,” Gillen said. “They made very few errors and we made a lot of errors. The came and played loose and ready to play.”
Said Brady, “We were so mentally locked in. ... We knew (the match) wasn’t going to be given at the same time.”