ROSEVILLE — After falling to Stillwater in five games during last year’s Section 4AAA volleyball finals, North St. Paul did not dawdle while sweeping the Ponies to claim its first-ever section championship on Thursday, Oct. 31 at Roseville Area High School.
The Polars dressed the part as the top seed on Halloween, knocking out Stillwater 25-19, 25-15 and 25-15.
North St. Paul (23-5) went on to sweep third-seeded Lakeville North (23-8) in the state quarterfinals on Thursday, Nov. 7 to earn a spot in the semifinals against second-seeded Wayzata.
Stillwater, which was seeking its third straight state tournament appearance and fourth overall, finished the season with a 16-14 record.
The Polars defeated Stillwater 3-1 in late August, but the Ponies were hoping to turn the tables following the maturation of a team that included several varsity newcomers.
“We couldn’t be happier with the progress of the girls and at the end of the day that’s what matters,” Ponies coach Bob Fisher said. “The girls got better and pulled it together after graduating so much experience last year. You’ve got to take your hats off to North. They kept us out of system and worked us.”
The Polars were in control from the start, led by right side hitter Lauren Stenman. The senior finished with a team-high 14 kills.
“She gets up and swings well,” Fisher said.
Stillwater started strong in the second set while building a 7-4 lead, but the Polars scored 11 of the next 12 points to take control with a 15-8 advantage.
North St. Paul was sharp throughout, in all phases of the game.
“It was basic Volleyball 101,” said Fisher, who drew a comparison to football. “The serve and receive is the blocking and tackling of volleyball. They beat us in the serve and receiving serve game. We were struggling to stay in system out of serve receive and because our serves weren’t as effective as they have been they were in system way more than we were and that makes for a long night if you can’t turn the tables at some point.
“Even though they were the one seed and we were third, we felt very good going in. They were extremely scrappy and everything they touched came up. It seemed like everything we touched we were a half step behind or it was off arms or out of bounds. All of that stuff is a function of being in system or out of system.”
North St. Paul did not let up after winning the second set comfortably.
Fisher said the Ponies remained optimistic going into the third set, but North St. Paul just never wavered. The Polars jumped out to a 6-1 lead and were never seriously challenged.
“I had the feeling even going into the third set that if we could get things going we could take these guys, but it never came together,” Fisher said.
Sydney DeJarnett led the Ponies with nine kills while Lauren Riniker followed with eight kills. The Polars focused much of their attention on Maddie Whittington, who finished with six kills in the final match of her decorated career at Stillwater.
“They keyed on her pretty heavy,” Fisher said. “They kept us from getting any type of rhythm. They played really well.”
Elle Sprenger led the Ponies with 10 digs while Olivia Foss ended the night with 13 set assists. Gabby Boegel added nine set assists for the Ponies.
“We know them well enough just because a lot of our kids play against each other year round,” Fisher said. “There was no mystery there. We knew what we were up against and what we had to execute, but one thing leads to another and things can snowball if you’re not careful. We’d seem to get close to getting something started and then something would happen, whether it was a ball off a block for a point for them or a missed serve. We just couldn’t quite get on track.”
Stillwater finished with just two aces while missing six serves.
“Even when we did serve them in, it was not as tough as we had in the past,” Fisher said. “When the other team is in system it‘s tough to make great plays because they’re doing what they want to do to you. It’s easy to look scrappy when your team is dictating play and in system. It’s harder to make the great plays when scrambling because the other team is in system.”
After winning just two of its first nine matches to start the season, Stillwater turned things around while posting a 14-7 record after Sept. 20.
The coach was not going to let a loss in the section finals take away from the positive momentum the built throughout the season.
“The girls I think felt like it was a good season in terms of what we wanted to accomplish,” Fisher said. “They did they want to make one more step, sure, but we feel with one more good match we’d be at the state tournament, which was our ultimate goal. We played well and we think we’re probably a top 15 or 20 team in the state this year with somewhat of a rebuilding year. When you look in the rear view mirror you can say it was a good season, but it’s always woulda, coulda, shoulda.”