MARSHALL - After his team dropped the fourth set of Thursday's Section 3A-South final and found itself tied with Southwest United, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton head volleyball coach TJ Williams said he actually felt pretty confident. And he had good reason.
Simply stated, the Knights own fifth sets.
Jumping out to an 8-0 lead in the decisive set, the fifth-seeded Knights earned their seventh win in the eight five-set matches they've played this season, defeating the third-seeded Wildcats 27-29, 25-19, 25-20, 23-25, 15-10 at the R/A Facility at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
The Russell-Tyler-Ruthton volleyball team celebrates after winning the final point of the Section 3A-South final against Southwest United Thursday night at the R/A Facility at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.
The Knights had knocked off No. 1 seed Southwest Minnesota Christian in five sets in the previous round, and with Thursday's win over the Wildcats, RTR, a team that went 11-20 last year, is now 20-12 and one win away from advancing to the state tournament.
"I keep waking up every morning and thinking, 'Is this real? Did that just happen, or am I still dreaming?' I just hope nobody tries to pinch me," said Williams, who is in his first year leading the Knights.
Williams and the Knights will try to extend their dream season Saturday when they face Section 3A-North champion Minneota at 6 p.m. at the R/A Facility in Marshall.
Sophomore outside hitter Janel Wichern continued her strong tournament with a stellar performance on Thursday to help lead the Knights to victory. She had 20 kills, 21 digs, three ace blocks and four ace serves on the night. Senior hitter Leslie Willert also had a huge hand in the win with 10 kills, 19 digs and four ace blocks.
The RTR front row quite literally faced a big challenge Thursday night. The 6-foot-2 frame of Southwest United sophomore outside hitter Courtney Place stood as an imposing presence throughout the match and had the Knights keeping an eye on where she was at all times.
"Our plan was to go out and play hard like we have been in past playoff games," Wichern said. "They have those tall hitters and we knew that they were going to hit it down, so we knew we had to be really scrappy."
RTR got off to a strong start to the match and had a 24-20 edge in the first set after a hitting error by the Wildcats. But Southwest United fought off four straight set points and eventually won the set at 29-27 with an ace block.
The Knights again built a healthy lead in the second set, and this time they didn't let it go. Up eight points on a few different occasions in the set, RTR claimed a 25-19 win when Wichern smashed a kill off a Southwest United block attempt to even the match.
RTR almost gave up another lead in the third set, seeing a five-point advantage evaporate and turn into a 20-all tie. But back-to-back errors by the Wildcats stopped their momentum and RTR won the next five points, closing the set off with a kill by Willert from the left side.
In the fourth set, it was Southwest United that pulled ahead, grabbing a 23-18 lead after a kill by Place, one of her 21 kills on the night. RTR trimmed the lead to 24-23 but couldn't quite complete the comeback.
Entering the fifth set, the Knights knew it was their time.
"If we go to five we just say that we have to step it up now and we can't let down," Willert said.
Southwest United started the set with a serving error, then had another error to give the Knights a 2-0 lead. A kill off the Wildcats' block by Wichern put RTR up 4-0, and back-to-back ace serves by RTR's Destine Strand gave the Knights an 8-0 lead. The Wildcats tried to claw back, but had dug themselves too deep of a hole.
The key to Thursday's win was clear for Williams.
"We knew going into the playoffs we had to pick up our defense," he said. "Our offense is going to come, so our focus has been our defense, and the girls have done a great job of getting better each match."
The Knights had five players with 14 or more digs in the match. Joining Wichern and Willert in that group were Strand (17), Allison Pochardt (15) and Delanie Jorgensen (14).
Pochardt and Justine Possail each had a pair of ace blocks to help the Knights' front row against Place. Place finished the match with eight ace blocks of her own.
The Knights now have to try to get past defending section champion Minneota, which will be no easy task. But they feel they're a different team this year, and they want to keep showing it.
"Our team has gotten 100 percent better since last year," Willert said. "This year we decided we wanted to start to win and we've shown that we're different from what we were last year."
SWU29 19 2025 10
RTR27 25 25 23 15
Serving (good-att-aces): RTR-Janel Wichern 20-22-4, Destinee Strand 29-31-2, Leslie Willert 13-13-1, Allison Pochardt 22-22-1; SWU-Alyssa Hendrickson 18-20-3, Mandy Henkels 17-17-0.
Kills: RTR-Wichern 20, Willert 10; SWU-Courtney Place 21, Rachel Mathias 11.
Digs: RTR-Wichern 21, Willert 19, Strand 17, Pochardt 15, Delanie Jorgensen 14; SWU-Place 22, Henkels 19.
Set Assists: RTR-Strand 15, Pochardt 7; SWU-Henkels 44.
Blocks: RTR-Willert 4, Wichern 3, Pochardt 2, Justine Possail 2; SWU-Place 8, Mathias 2.