BY ROB LAPLANTE
It was fitting, that on Halloween night the team dressed in orange and black won a thrilling 3-2 victory over St. Michael-Albertville in the Section 5AAA volleyball semifinals at Blaine High School.
With all top four seed advancing to the Section 5AAA final four, the No. 3 seed Knights were facing the No. 2 seed Osseo Orioles.
“We knew it was going to be a battle,” said Osseo head coach Bill Quan. “Coaches vote for the seeding meeting for the two and three seeds and it was super-crazy close. You just never know in the 2-3 matchups.”
While the Orioles have the advantage of playing in the Northwest Suburban Conference, which features powers like Blaine, Anoka, Andover and Maple Grove. STMA head coach Ryan Dehnel said he thought his girls were battle tested heading into the semifinal showdown.
“We played the 13th most difficult schedule in 3A,” Dehnel said. “I knew this would be a close battle.”
Neither team had a girl listed six feet or taller on the roster, but the Orioles took the first set 25-18 behind the play of three girls who could all finish. Outside hitters Shiah Sanders, Hannah Pekarek, Christina Boe, Jackie Jones and middle hitter Phillis Webb all took turns on the attack.
The Knights regrouped and adjusted well to the depth and athleticism Osseo showed in the first set. Thanks to some over aggressiveness on Osseo’s part and a few big kills from sophomore Freya Macari Hanson, the Knights took the second set 25-19.
In the pivotal third set, Osseo took a 14-10 lead, forcing an STMA time out. When play resumed, STMA captain Becky Hackenmueller took over. The senior unleashed five huge kills that set, giving the Knights a 25-22 win and 2-1 advantage in the match.
“They tend to leave the wide sides open,” Hackenmueller said. “That’s what we kind of took advantage of when I got open on those slides.”
Hackenmueller finished the match STMA’s kills leader with 13. However, just when it looked like STMA made proper adjustments, Osseo came out with its backs against the wall and dominated the fourth set, jumping to a quick 10-3 advantage.
“Osseo stepped up their game,” Hackenmueller said. “But we sat back and tried to let them make the errors. We didn’t go after it and play like we can and I feel like everyone on our team kind of got scared.”
Osseo’s Boe and Jones were stinging the ball all over the court and the Orioles eventually won the set 25-18. The momentum carried over into the final set.
A dejected STMA team fell behind 10-1 and with the Osseo crowd chanting “season’s over,” the Knights seemed to take it to heart and battled back to make the score 12-7. But the deficit was too big and the Orioles eventually prevailed 15-7, winning the match 3-2.
“To their credit, they came out late in the match aggressive,” Dehnel said. “We didn’t really respond. We didn’t pass very well and when we did get the ball to our hitters, we weren’t aggressive. Credit to Osseo, they definitely earned that win.”
“In the second and third sets, (Jenny) Olejar and Hackenmueller were doing an outstanding job on that slide,” said Quan, who saw his team defeat Totino-Grace, only to lose 3-1 to Blaine in the section finals. “We tried to adjust in the last two sets so they couldn’t come through on that slide and we came through with a couple nice runs there. We were fortunate enough to come out on top of a very good St. Michael team.”
The Knights finished the season 18-13 overall. Highlights from the year were a 3-1 win at Buffalo, which clinched a tie with the Bison for the M-8 title.
Another highlight was a 2-1 win at the STMA Invite over Section 7AAA champions Anoka. Another state tournament bound team, Eden Prairie, was a highlight match. Even though the Knights fell 2-0 to the Eagles, they gave the defending state champions a scare, losing 27-25, 25-20.
“I think it was a pretty successful season,” Dehnel said. “The majority of our losses were against teams ranked in the top 10 in one of the classes or when we were shorthanded. We worked hard and improved as the season went on. I’m disappointed for our seniors; they really wanted another shot at Blaine. But it was a fun year and it was a big step for our program.”