Prep Volleyball: Willmar reboots

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WILLMAR — For the first set of a Section 8AAA semifinal against Alexandria on Tuesday night, Willmar looked like the team that lost to the rival Cardinals earlier in the season.

Over the final three sets, however, Willmar flipped the switch and played like the top seed it is to move to the doorstep of a state tournament appearance.

Alexandria clawed out a dramatic 25-23 first-set win, but Willmar rebounded with 25-16, 25-19, 25-16 victories in the final three sets to reach the section final, where it will face No. 3 Moorhead on Saturday.

"We haven't started well and don't seem like we're nervous, but there must be some level of that going on," Willmar head coach Traci Grussing said. "It's to be expected to a degree. We have a lot of inexperience and younger kids. We'll try to figure that out before Moorhead."

In the early stages Tuesday, Alexandria seemed to carry over its same effective play from its final three sets of a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Willmar on October 5. After surviving a late push that its 24-18 lead dwindle down to 24-23, Alexandria closed out the first set with a kill to notch its fourth set win in a row over Willmar, dating back to the sides' last contest.

From there, Willmar improved its serve receive and found its attackers up front to gain control in each of the last three sets.

"We were more aggressive overall and also in control of our serve receive," Grussing said. "We had a lot of receiving errors in that first set. It wasn't so much them dominating us as it was just making mistakes."

Willmar jumped out to a 12-5 lead in the second set and, while Alexandria then rattled off four consecutive points, the Cardinals to the south built up a 19-11 advantage with a 7-2 run of their own.

Both teams exchanged runs to open the match-swinging third set, with Alexandria's 9-4 burst tying the score at 13 and prompting a Willmar timeout. From there, Abby Stark delivered an ace and a Callie Slagter dig led to a kill that erupted the home crowd as Willmar ran off four straight points for a 17-13 lead.

Willmar treaded water from there to take a command 2-1 lead with a 25-19 set win.

No comeback would be in the cards for Alexandria tonight as Willmar dealt a commanding fourth-set victory to seal the match.

"Last time we faced them, we got a little worried about losing," Grussing said. "Tonight we played a little bit mad after that first set. The girls came into the huddle knowing they didn't play that well, but getting upset about it isn't always the answer. We were able to respond, though."

Esther Grussing finished the night with 42 kills for Willmar, with Abby Volk and Carly Wedel the most common recipients with 13 kills apiece.

Revenge will be on Willmar's minds as they take on Moorhead in Alexandria after the Spuds ended their season at the same stage just one year ago.

In the lone matchup between the teams this year, the Cardinals proved their mettle with a 2-1 win at the Moorhead Tournament just two weeks ago.

Willmar 3, Alexandria 1

Alexandria (16-13) 25 16 19 16

Willmar (25-4) 23 25 25 25

Alexandria

Stats not provided

Willmar

Serving (aces): Esther Grussing 3, Emma Rosen 1, Cambrie Parker 2, Callie Slagter 2, Abby Stark 2 ... Set assists: Stark 4, Slagter 1, Carly Wedel 1, Grussing 42 ... Hitting (kills): Stark 1, Abby Volk 13, Caitlin Ogdahl 8, Wedel 13, Grussing 4, Grace Marti 7, Sydney Olson 8 ... Blocking (aces): Volk 1, Ogdahl 2, Wedel 2, Grussing 2, Marti 4 ... Digs (5 or more): Stark 22, Ogdahl 5, Slagter 9, Parker 5, Wedel 5, Grussing 14