By Jim Rueda
Free Press Staff Writer
ST. PAUL —
All season long, the Belle Plaine volleyball team has relied on balance to knock off opposing teams.
That was the case again Thursday as the Tigers swept Thief River Falls 27-25, 25-17, 25-17 in the quarterfinals of the Class AA state tournament at Xcel Energy Center.
Belle Plaine finished with three players in double-figure for kills and five with at least seven kills. Eighth-grader Mariena Hayden pulled away from the pack in the final set, finishing with a team-high 16 kills and a .455 hitting percentage.
“Balance has been our strength all year,” coach Cassie Wolpern said. “We have some players who hit consistently higher than others, but we have six hitters that other teams have to contend with. That causes problems for defenses.”
The fourth-seeded Tigers built leads of 5-1, 11-6 and 14-8 in the first set before Thief River Falls rallied. Trailing 20-17, the Prowlers went on a 6-1 run, sparked by two kills from Brooke Anderson.
The rally gave Thief River Falls a 23-21 lead, and the teams played back and forth the rest of the way. With the match tied at 25, Hayden took over with an ace tip and a middle kill for Belle Plaine's 27-25 win.
In the second set, Belle Plaine led 16-14 before pulling away. A kill by Kirsten Johnson, who showed no ill effects from the dislocated finger she suffered in the section championship game, ignited a 9-3 run.
A kill and ace tip by Amara Meyer and two kills and a block by Jordan Going led the surge. Haley Fogarty ended it when she blocked a kill attempt for the 25-17 win.
“If you find a hole in the block, that’s where you have to hit the ball," Wolpern said. “That’s why we went to the middle so much tonight. Our setters did a great job of putting us in a position to make plays.”
The third set was tied at 17 before the Tigers finished it with an 8-0 run. Hayden was all but unstoppable down the stretch, slamming three kills before ending the match with another mid-court spike.
“I was feeling it,” said the eighth-grader. “I think we all were feeling it. Everybody did a great blocking, passing and hitting.”
Wolpern said she was impressed by Hayden's effort.
“It’s been awhile since Mariena has had a really strong all-around match for us,” Wolpern said. “It’s usually hitting or defense, but she put it all together tonight. For an eighth-grader playing in her first match at the Xcel Energy Center, it was quite a performance.”
Hayden finished with 12 digs to go along with 16 kills. Fogarty ended up with 10 kills and 16 digs, Going had 10 kills and five blocks, and Marykay Nasby closed out with seven kills.
Johnson has a strong match all-around, finishing with eight kills, seven digs and 31 assists. Meleah Biermaier led the Prowlers with nine kills.
Belle Plaine (26-7) takes on Marshall in the semifinals at 5 p.m. today at the Xcel Center. Marshall, the No. 1 seed, swept Mora 3-0 Thursday night.
“I told the girls there are only two or three teams up here who are capable of upsetting Marshall in this tournament and we’re one of them,” Wolpern said. “That’s what our mission is (Friday).”