The Minnesota state volleyball tournament is taking place at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul this week. (Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune)
Mayer Lutheran has spent the entire season with an inordinate amount of attention directed at them, and with good reason.
The Crusaders have occupied the top spot in the Class 1A volleyball all year and have four All-State players dotting their roster. They’re accustomed to being the hunted, but it’s not always a situation they enjoy.
Mayer Lutheran coach Joelle Grimsley addressed that following a 25-16, 25-7, 25-19 victory over Bethlehem Academy in the Class 1A semifinals.
“It’s scary to me, having that 'X' on your back,” Grimsley said. “It’s normal. Everywhere we go, people are out to get us. Who wouldn’t be, right? We talk about that a lot. You’re number one for a reason. Go out there and show it.”
They did just that Friday, against an opponent with a pedigree that rivals their own.
Both Mayer Lutheran and Bethlehem Academy are making their 14th state tournament appearances. Bethlehem Academy has seven previous state titles, Mayer Lutheran three.
But Friday, it was evident early which was the better team.
All-State hitters, and cousins, Lilly and Gabby Wachholz combined for 28 of their 45 kills, All-State setter Emma Lade had 35 set assists. And All-State right-side hitter Maddie Guetzkow had 9 kills, 4 assists and two blocks.
Mayer Lutheran has leaned on those players all season. Even Grimsley said that, unfortunately, that talented foursome occasionally overshadows the rest of the team.
“I think they do, but [their teammates] are right there with them,” Grimsley stressed. “We always talk about team. And you see Stella [Maass] and Julia [Carns] and our bench pick up the play.”
Grimsley paused and looked down the table in the press room at her four superstars.
“But they’re pretty strong and steady,” she smiled. “It’s really nice to have four of them.
Already with a two-set lead, Minneota was up in the third set against Walker-Hackensack-Akeley. But a service error and attack error for Minneota led to three straight points for its opponent and cut Minneota’s lead to 11-8.
Minneota coach Hayley Fruin took a timeout to discuss those atypical errors from one of their best rotations.
“This is the time that we’re usually scoring points, and we’re giving up points,” Fruin said. “We just mentally were kind of checked out at that point. Just needed to regroup.”
Message received. Minneota came out of the break with a 6-1 run on the way to finishing off a sweep of Walker-Hackensack-Akeley, 25-18, 25-21, 25-14.
In the third set, senior outside hitter Natalee Rolbiecki added four kills during that run after the timeout, quickly turning the momentum back in the Vikings’ favor to end the match winning 14 of the last 20 points.
“Nat does a great job,” Fruin said. “She’s just got one heck of a great line shot, but she also is smart and she does a great job of mixing up her shots.”
Rolbiecki was one piece of the Vikings successful attack, getting double-digit kills from three players. She finished with 20 kills and nine digs, senior Abby Frie had 11 kills and junior setter Ireland Stassen finished with 10 kills. Fruin and Rolbiecki also credited freshman Elivia Faris for stepping up and playing all three rotations.
Six Vikings combined for 53 total kills in the match. They “always kept (the Wolves) blockers guessing,” Rolbiecki said.
“They have a well-balanced attack,” said Wolves coach Monica Voeller. “Which unfortunately today our blocking was not as keen as it needed to be.”
Katie Sagen led the Wolves (29-6) with 12 kills, while Kali Oelschlager notched 11 kills.
The Vikings (31-4) will play in their eighth state title game in search of their third consecutive state championship (2018, 2019) and fourth overall. They’ll face top-seed Mayer Lutheran, a team the Vikings lost to in five sets to open their season Aug. 28 and again lost Sept. 25 by a 2-1 margin in invitational play.
“We really want revenge on Mayer Lutheran,” Stassen said. “This is our time to come out and show them what we actually can do, because we’ve really improved throughout this year.”
The finale will be a rematch of the 2017 championship when Mayer Lutheran swept Minneota 25-19, 25-16, 25-13 for the title.