After the North Branch volleyball team won a Section 7AA semifinal match against Hermantown, 25-18, 25-15, 25-18 on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at Cloquet Middle School, players and coaches stayed to watch the other semifinal, in which Proctor ousted Esko in four sets, and all Vikings knew that their match up with the Rails in the final would be a tough one.
“If we couldn’t keep [Proctor] out of system, we knew they were going to bring some heat,” North Branch head coach Mike Selbitschka said. “They have some nice hitters who get up high, and we knew we’d give up a bunch of points— we just had to control our side.”
“We knew that if we wanted to win, we were going to have to work for it,” senior outside hitter (and we can now officially add, Minnesota Ms. Volleyball finalist!) Cianna Selbitschka said. “We knew we’d have to look out for their left side and their right side.”
The Selbitschkas weren’t wrong: In the section championship match, back at Cloquet on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Rails (25-2 entering the title match) brought a surfeit of energy on the court supported by a raucous crowd itching for an upset. The Rails matched the Vikings (26-4 coming in) smash for smash in the first set, and strong hands at the net on defense took the sting out of many Viking attacks. After 38 plays, the Rails held the scores even at 19-19.
“We train to hit high, get out of their arms and fingertips and try to cause havoc on their side,” Mike Selbitschka said. “They had a good wall so we had to work to get around it or over it.”
The Vikings went up 20-19 on a Proctor mis-hit, and what probably should have been a tying kill for the Rails was saved with a beautiful diving dig by senior libero Kylie Kline, which kept the play alive for Cianna Selbitschka to smash home a point. Her next kill put North Branch up 23-19, and although the Rails got 2 points back, an ace by junior Paige Sheehan and a block by Cianna ended the set at 25-21.
After similar play saw the scores sit at 8-7 Vikings early in the second set, North Branch went on a rally led by senior Macy Brodin in service, which included two aces and a kill by sophomore Paige Peaslee. The Rails clawed for a rally of their own to tie the scores at 13-13, but the Vikings kept them at bay en route to a 25-18 win that was helped along by a Sheehan ace and a Cianna block and was finished on a kill by senior Haley Hadrava.
The larger deficit in the second set quieted the Proctor crowd, and a 6-6 early score in the third set turned into a 12-6 Viking lead after another strong service run by Brodin that included a pair of kills by Hadrava and one by Peaslee.
A few minutes later, the Vikings led 21-13 and were on the cusp of their third straight trip to the Class AA state tournament after executing a signature play, the split-second set-to-middle-spike between Sheehan and junior Reagan Irons. The Rails fought to save their season but left it too late: Selbitschka ended a long Rail rally at 24-22, and though the Rails won the next point and got the ball back, their bid to score their 24th point and force extra points lasted only as long as it took for their server to launch the ball over everyone’s head and well beyond the boundary line.
The error pushed the set score to 25-23 and allowed the Viking players to dogpile on the court. After the awards ceremony, they were joined by fans and family for a celebration that is becoming traditional for the program.
The Vikings are heading to state for the third time in as many seasons as members of Class AA, and for the fourth time in five years dating back to their Class AAA days. The Vikings have only dropped one set across 12 Section 7AA tournament matches in earning their three straight bids, and are, as no reader needs to be told, the defending Class AA state champions after taking runner-up honors in 2017.
A few of this year’s players go back as far as that 2017 run, and Cianna and Mike Selbitschka were a part of the 2015 Class AAA state appearance. That Viking team featured an offense led by Cianna’s older sister Courtney and won the consolation title (fifth place) against Moorhead.
Courtney will be at state, too, as an assistant coach with, funnily enough, Moorhead, which made the Class AAA field. Courtney told this paper earlier this fall that she enjoys teasing her head coach at Moorhead about that 2015 consolation final victory.
The Vikings earned the No. 3 seed for the Class AA tournament, which will be played at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul starting Thursday, Nov. 7, and running through Saturday, Nov. 9. The Vikings go into the tournament with a record of 27-4, with two of those losses coming at the hands of an out-of-state team (River Falls, Wis.) and another coming against a team that made the Class AAA state field (Minnetonka). The Vikes will open against Pequot Lakes (27-5) at 7 p.m. on day one, and a win could push them into a rematch of last year’s final with No. 2 Marshall (28-5). The Vikings needed all five sets, plus extra points in the last one, and to survive a championship-point serve by the Tigers to win their 2018 title.
The No. 1 seed is Stewartville (27-4), which won the Section 1AA title over Kasson-Mantorville (27-6) a team that would be in the field if things were arranged purely by rankings rather than by geographic sections. The Vikings upset the KoMets in last year’s semifinal in five sets, after edging Watertown-Mayer the same way in the quarters — and W-M will be in this year’s field as well. The full tournament schedule is below, and it goes without saying (but we’ll allow them to say it anyway) that the Vikings are not going to take anyone lightly in their bid to defend their championship.
“We definitely have a big target on our back since we won state last year,” Cianna Selbitschka said. “In these next two practices [before state] we’ll be working our butts off knowing that everyone wants to beat us, but we want that title again.”
Mike Selbitschka can now curtail, by two words, his seasonlong phrasing of “when and if we get to state,” but he still holds to his other wise line about taking one game at a time.
“This is going to be the highest level of competition we’ve seen all year obviously, and I’m expecting a five-game match every time, just like we had last year,” he said.
Thursday, Nov. 7
QF1: Stewartville (27-4) vs. Annandale (27-3), 5 p.m.
QF2: W’town-Mayer (24-6) vs. Concordia (25-6), 5 p.m.
QF3: Marshall (28-5) vs. Belle Plaine (22-9), 7 p.m.
QF4: North Branch (27-4) vs. Pequot Lks. (27-5), 7 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 8
CN1: Loser QF 1 vs. Loser QF2, 5 p.m.
CN2: Loser QF3 vs. Loser QF 4, 7 p.m.
SF1: Winner QF 1 vs. Winner QF 2, 5 p.m.
SF2: Winner QF 3 vs. Winner QF 4, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 9
Consolation: Winner CN1 vs. Winner CN2, 11 a.m.
Third Place: Loser SF 1 vs. Loser SF 2, 1 p.m.
Championship: Winner SF 1 vs. Winner SF 2, 3 p.m.