Stillwater's Reece Koehler spiked the ball over Shakopee defenders in the Class 3A quarterfinals Thursday at Xcel Center. Photos: Jerry Holt • Jerry.firstname.lastname@example.org
Things went about as well as possible for Stillwater in the first set of its thrilling quarterfinal match against Shakopee. The Ponies were passing crisply, playing rock-solid defense at the net and hitting with accuracy.
The rest of the match Thursday at Xcel Energy Center proved much more difficult.
The Ponies first-set dominance produced a 25-15 victory but it slowly eroded as the match went on. After Stillwater took the second set 25-23, Shakopee rallied to win the third set 25-22 and fourth set 25-17.
Worry crept in on the Stillwater side.
“Once we had lost the third and the fourth set, I was really nervous,” said Stillwater senior Reece Kohler, who was one of the long, tall Ponies’ key weapons with 17 kills and 6 blocks. “When you have won the first two sets and lost the next two, it’s a difficult thing to come back from.”
The Ponies suppressed their concern in the fifth set and replaced it with a calm reserve that helped them win eight consecutive points to take the final set 15-8 and advance to the semifinals.
“This is a pretty resilient team,” Stillwater coach Bob Fisher said. “Seriously, they knew that they just had to play the game.”
Looking for a late spark, the Ponies relied on a quote from the one of the school’s most famous alumni, Olympic cross-country skiing champion Jessie Diggins.
“If we’ve got anything left in the tank at the end, then we didn’t give our all,” Fisher said. “We steal that from Jessie Diggins.”
For Shakopee, in its first state tournament since 2012, falling behind early was just too big of a hole to dig their way out of.
“We weren’t used to playing a team like Stillwater, which is so middle-heavy,” said senior outside hitter Rachel Kilkelly, who led Shakopee with 19 kills.
“We started slow. That’s all there is to it,” Sabers coach Matt Busch said. “Unfortunately, we were a little bit too late.”