By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
ST PETER — When senior hitter Kirsten Johnson suffered a broken finger near the end of the second set on Saturday, the Belle Plaine volleyball team knew it was going to have to dig deep.
The Tigers responded in a big way at Lund Center, winning three of the final four sets to beat Le Sueur-Henderson 16-25, 25-19, 25-19, 15-25, 15-6 and win the Section 2AA championship. The triumph gives Belle Plaine its first state tournament berth in seven years.
“We had to adjust when Kirsten went out but we pulled through,” Belle Plaine coach Cassie Wolpern said. “We had switch from a 6-2 to a 5-1 and eighth-grader Danielle Taylor had to come in and give us a lot of playing time.
“Sometimes eighth-graders are just naive enough to not realize the ramifications of what’s going on. I guess you call it the innocence of youth.”
Le Sueur-Henderson won the first set between the longtime Minnesota River Conference rivals. The Giants gradually built a 16-12 lead and then outscored Belle Plaine 9-4 the rest of the way. Danica Tiegs had three kills down the stretch and Gabby Thomas ended it with an ace tip. Game 2 went to the Tigers as they led 22-18 when Johnson went up for a block of a Jessica Thelemann shot and broke her pinky as the ball caromed off. Despite the injury, the Tigers pulled out the 25-19 win.
“That was a set we had to have,” LSH coach Dave Nixon said. “We had a chance to win that one before they had a chance to adjust and we didn’t capitalize. We just didn’t execute.”
The Tigers led the third set 21-17 and then pulled away for the victory. Mariena Hayden ripped a middle kill for the 24th point and Haley Fogarty ended it with a kill down the line.
“When Kirsten went out we just had to keep our focus and stick to what got us here,” Fogarty said. “We just all worked together as a team.”
The Giants stole back the momentum in Set 4, building an 18-14 lead and then outscoring the Tigers 7-1. A couple of blocks by Ali Plieseis and kills by Thelemann, Thomas and Tiegs keyed the run.
The deciding set turned out to be all Belle Plaine. The Tigers jumped to leads of 4-1, 8-2 and 14-4 before finishing with the 15-6 win. Fogarty came up big in the finale, getting four kills and an ace block.
“I don’t know but, for whatever reason, we just didn’t execute in the fifth set,” Nixon said. “But give Belle Plaine credit. They’re a very good team and they just outplayed us tonight.”
Fogarty finished with 15 kills and 19 digs. Hayden added 12 kills, Jordan Going had 10 kills, Claire Otto had 20 digs and Devin Lehman had 37 assists.
LSH was paced by Thelemann’s 24 kills and 23 digs. Thomas ended up with 13 kills and 17 digs, Tiegs had 11 kills and five blocks and Maddie Kleschult helped out with seven digs and three ace serves.
Plieseis had a solid all-round night, finishing with 43 assists. 13 digs, four blocks and four kills. LSH ends the season at 22-9.
Belle Plaine (27-7) begins state tournament play on Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.