Prep Volleyball: Moorhead outlasts Willmar for 8AAA title

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ALEXANDRIA — Having to tweak a starting lineup is a difficult proposition for any volleyball team at any point in the season.

Willmar had to do it before its most important match of the season, and it gave Moorhead just enough of an edge to end the Cardinals' season in five sets in the Section 8AAA championship match on Saturday at Alexandria High School.

Moorhead prevailed 25-18, 25-10, 20-25, 21-25, 15-6.

The Cardinals finished 25-5 and narrowly missed out on the team's first state tournament berth.

Cardinals junior Grace Marti, a 5-foot-11 mainstay at middle hitter all season, injured her knee in Willmar's semifinals match on Oct. 31. Head coach Traci Grussing altered the lineup but the Cards couldn't get going. Moorhead easily won the first two sets.

"(After the second set) I told them that we graduated five starters last year and nobody thought that we would be where we are except us," Grussing said, "and that we needed to play like the team we have been all year and be aggressive and confident and supportive of each other."

Grussing's words of encouragement worked, as did the presence of Marti gamely playing wearing two knee braces.

Willmar responded and in the third set played "like our old selves," Grussing said, but Marti aggravated the knee injury and went to floor with the scored 23-15 in the third set. She was able to limp to the bench but her night was over.

Willmar forced a deciding fifth set but Moorhead surged out to 6-2 and 10-5 leads to effectively quash the Cardinals' comeback.

"With a new lineup, we had to have more intensity," said Willmar senior setter Esther Grussing. "We practiced great and we had the mentality that we would make it work. I don't think we played bad, and I was happy we came out in the third and fourth games and played well."

The Spuds were witness to that.

Moorhead head coach Char Lien said the big wins in the first two sets were, in hockey parlance, "the two-goal kiss of death."

"After that, the worst thing you can do is give (the opponent) a breath of fresh air," said Lien, who takes the Spuds back to the state tournament for a second-straight year. "(Willmar) is an emotional team and when (Marti) returned in that third game, it inspired them and they played terrific. I think we got shook and lost a little confidence."

But Lien also described her players as a "Steady Eddie team" that trusted in each other, even after the mid-match slump.

Lexi Gilbertson, who led the Spuds with 20 kills, encouraged her teammates as the deciding set loomed.

"I would tell everyone, we're fine," Gilbertson said. "We're going to have a good (fifth) game. The battle will be hard but it will be worth it. All the work we've done in practice, it was going to pay off."

Brook Carney backed up Gilbertson up front with 17 kills. Jalen Ennen and Brooke Walthall both finished with seven kills.

Brooke Carney also had four solo blocks and Kourtney Carney had three blocks and three service aces to go with her 49 set assists.

Willmar's Carly Wedel had 15 kills, Abby Volk finished with 12 kills and Sydney Olson had nine. Marti had two kills and led the team with three blocks during her brief stint. Esther Grussing had 41 set assists.

Section 8AAA Championship

Moorhead 3, Willmar 2

Moorhead (21-9) 25 25 20 21 15

Willmar (25-5) 18 10 25 25 6

Moorhead

Serving (aces): Kortney Carney 3 ... Set assists: K. Carney 49 ... Hitting (kills): Lexi Gilbertson 20, Brook Carney 17, Jalen Ennen 7, Brooke Walthall 7 ... Blocking (aces): B. Carney 4, K. Carney 3 ... Digs (5 or more): Callie Ahlgren 22, Ennen 21, Walthall 16

Willmar

Serving (aces): Abby Stark 2, Caitlin Ogdahl 2, Cambrie Parker 1, Esther Grussing 2 ... Set assists: Grussing 41 ... Hitting (kills): Stark 2, Abby Volk 12, Ogdahl 1, Callie Slagter 1, Carly Wedel 15, Grussing 2, Grace Marti 2, Reagan Bos 3, Sydney Olson 9 ... Blocking (aces): Volk 2, Ogdahl 1, Marti 3, Bos 1 ... Digs (5 or more): Stark 24, Ogdahl 15, Slagter 9, Parker 10, Grussing 14, Olson 5