A heartbreaking loss in last year’s Section 8AA championship match provided incentive for a historic win in this year’s Section 8AA championship match for the Park Rapids volleyball team.
A year ago, Roseau prevented the Panthers from qualifying for the state tournament for the first time in school history with a 25-23, 21-25, 25-18, 25-21 win at Fosston.
In the Section 8AA championship rematch Saturday night at Fosston, the Panthers avenged that loss with a dominant 25-16, 25-13, 25-13 victory to capture their first section title and advance to state for the first time in program history.
“We had a very strong season last year and losing that championship match was heartbreaking. The girls learned from that moment and knew it was going to take something extra and they walked the walk,” said Park Rapids head coach Stephanie Hanson, who shared Section 8AA Coach of the Year honors with Hawley’s Jennifer Christofferson. “There are really no words when it comes to how satisfying the win was. These girls have put in a lot of time working towards getting to the big stage. State is an amazing experience, but you have to play among the best and beat them and we did that (Saturday night).”
In contrast to last year’s title match, the Panthers took control midway through the first set and controlled the next two sets to complete their mission of earning a state berth.
The opening set featured eight ties as both teams traded points in battling to an 8-8 deadlock. Rilee Michaelson, Kaisa Coborn and Kamree Carlson had kills during the early going for Park Rapids. Three straight kills by Michaelson and a kill by Coborn gave the Panthers a 12-9 lead. Park Rapids would not trail the rest of the way as a kill and ace serve by Michaelson and a kill by Coborn kept Park Rapids in front 20-14 before a kill by Kayleah Breitweser helped close out the opening set.
Winning the first set gave the Panthers all the confidence they needed.
“It was electric right off the bat. Roseau came out on fire and so did we and then we just took over the match by playing the best ball we have played all year,” said Hanson. “We prepared in practice to have the mental state to handle the match. Nerves are going to happen and I told the girls to embrace it and own it and they did. They were calm and focused and played so well as a team. They played confident.”
The momentum from winning the opening set carried over throughout the rest of the match.
Three service points and a kill by Rilee Michaelson were followed by an ace serve and five service points by Carlson as the Panthers jumped out to a 10-1 advantage to start Set 2. A block by Michaelson and Kendra Scholz, two kills by Coborn and two ace serves by Kora Just extended the lead to 18-6. Kills by Carlson and Michaelson made it 21-9 before two kills by Coborn closed out that set.
Kills by Carlson and Coborn and an ace serve by Katelyn Weaver gave the Panthers a 4-0 lead to start Set 3 before kills by Michaelson and Coborn made it 6-2. Scholz served four straight points as an ace and two kills by Coborn extended the advantage to 10-2. A kill and ace serve by Michaelson, an ace serve by Coborn and a kill by Carlson pushed the margin to 15-6 before ace serves by Weaver and Carlson and kills by Michaelson and Carlson produced a 20-13 advantage. Kills by Coborn and Michaelson and a Roseau error ended the match as the Panthers began celebrating their first section title.
Coborn (12), Michaelson (11) and Carlson (8) combined for 31 kills as the Panthers pounded down 33 kills with nine hitting errors. Park Rapids put 71 of 75 serves in play with 10 aces as Scholz served 14 points and Weaver served 11 points while joining Just, Carlson and Michaelson with two ace serves. Weaver also had 29 set assists.
Defensively, Scholz and Michaelson had four assisted blocks each while Carlson and Breitweser assisted on three blocks each. Carlson (15), Coborn (14), Just (9), Scholz (6) and MIchaelson (5) teamed up for 49 digs for the Panthers, who entered as the No. 1 seed in the South.
Kacie Borowicz had 11 kills to lead the Rams, the No. 1 seed in the North who ended the season with a 19-12 record.
“We had very few unforced errors and we earned our points. We also served tough and kept them off their game,” said Hanson. “I feel the girls showed poise and confidence and they really did play their best volleyball when it counted. I kept telling them to trust each other and their training and don’t do anything new or special; just be them because they are great.”
Park Rapids will open the state Class AA tournament Thursday night at 7 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul against Marshall, which received the No. 3 seed for the state tournament. Marshall will enter the state quarterfinals with a 27-5 record while the Panthers will carry a 24-6 record into their state debut.
Thursday night’s other state Class AA quarterfinals matches pit Kasson-Mantorville (30-2) against St. Cloud Cathedral (28-2), North Branch (26-4) against Watertown-Mayer (24-6) and Concordia Academy (27-3) against Belle Plaine (24-6). Kasson-Mantorville ended the season rated No. 1 in the state and received the No. 1 seed for the tournament while Concordia Academy was seeded No. 2, North Branch was seeded No. 4 and Watertown-Mayer was seeded No. 5.
In the final state poll, Stewartville was rated No. 2, but lost to Kasson-Mantorville in the Section 1AA tournament. Concordia Academy was rated No. 3, Marshall was rated No. 4 and North Branch was rated No. 5. Belle Plaine (No. 7), Watertown-Mayer (No. 10) and St. Cloud Cathedral (No. 12) were also rated. Belle Plaine defeated No. 7 Kenyon-Wanamingo in the Section 2AA tournament while St. Cloud Cathedral defeated No. 9 Sauk Centre in the Section 6AA tournament.
The state championship semifinals and consolation semifinals will be held Friday night at 5 and 7 p.m. The state Class AA championship match is set for Saturday at 3 p.m. preceded by the third-place match at 1 p.m. and the consolation final at 11 a.m.
It took solid play from all seven Park Rapids regulars to earn the trip to state.
Offensively, the Panthers have relied on Michaelson (388 kills), Carlson (319 kills to surpass 1,000 in her career) and Coborn (288 kills) at the net with Breitweser (96 kills), Scholz (46 kills) and Weaver (44 kills) providing six hitting threats. Weaver runs the offense with 922 set assists. At the service line, Weaver has served 64 aces and 252 points, Carlson has served 40 aces and 214 points, Coborn has served 48 aces and 174 points, Michaelson has served 40 aces and 168 points, Just has served 34 aces and 147 points and Scholz has served 22 aces and 112 points. Those seven players have played in all 91 sets. Park Rapids is putting 90.9 percent of its serves in play with a .268 hitting percentage while averaging 12.5 kills and 2.8 aces per set.
Defensively, the Panthers average 18.2 digs a set with Carlson (390), Just (340), Coborn (339), Michaelson (273), Weaver (170), Scholz (70) and Breitweser (58) combining for 1,640 of the team’s 1,655 digs. Carlson and Coborn surpassed 1,000 career digs this season. Park Rapids also averages 1.4 blocks a set with Michaelson (60 total blocks), Scholz (50 blocks), Breitweser (44 blocks), Carlson (32 blocks), Weaver (26 blocks) and Coborn (20 blocks) leading the way.
The Panthers will need another balanced and confident attack to have success in their state debut.
“These AA schools down at state are brutal and highly competitive teams,” said Hanson. “My expectation is that Park Rapids will be Park Rapids and compete right along with them. I told the girls to keep believing and allow yourself and your teammates to do your best. That's all we can do. We shall see what happens.”Park Rapids statistics