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Prep volleyball: Marshall Tigers shut down Willmar Cardinals

Top-ranked Marshal earns another section title with a 3-1 win over Willmar at Marshall High School. The Tigers head to their record 30th state tournament.

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Senior Mackenzie Knofczynski and the Willmar volleyball team walks off the court while Marshall celebrates its Section 2AAA championship victory Thursday at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

MARSHALL — The Willmar volleyball team found a way to seize the momentum. Trailing 2-0 and down 9-2 in the third set, the Cardinals were able to climb out of the hole and extend their season by winning the set.

But if there’s any team in the state capable of shutting down any momentum, it’s the Marshall Tigers.

Marshall dominated the fourth set. The Tigers secured their state-record 30th state appearance with a victory in the Section 2AAA championship match, 25-16, 25-19, 22-25, 25-7.

“We’re definitely a better team than the first time we played them,” said Willmar head coach Leah Ruter. Back on Aug. 26, the Cardinals lost to the Tigers in three sets in the season-opening match.

“The girls fought and we left everything out on the floor. We’ve still got to hold our heads up high for taking one set from them.”

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Willmar junior Sydney Schnichels readies a serve during the Section 2AAA championship match against Marshall at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Top-seeded and top-ranked Marshall built up a 9-2 lead in the fourth set. But unlike the third, there was no coming back. The Tigers closed out the match with six straight points.

“Our kids really came out and played mistake-free in set four,” said Marshall head coach Dan Westby. “Any time you can do that, it’s going to be really difficult for anybody.

“We just feel fortunate about the fact that we get to move on after playing a great team in a section final and coming out on top.”

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The Willmar volleyball team reacts after scoring a point in the third set of the Section 2AAA championship match against Marshall Thursday at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

The first two sets of the championship match showcased two evenly matched squads. But, Marshall found a way to pull away each time.

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In the first, the Tigers went on a hot run with Maysa Gillingham at the service line. With a knuckleball-like serve keeping the Cardinals out of system, Marshall rattled off five straight points for a 10-7 lead and never had to look back.

“We felt that we had to win the serve-pass game and we did that for most of the night,” Westby said.

In the second, the Tigers’ defense never allowed second-seeded and fifth-ranked Willmar to score more than two consecutive points.

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The Willmar student section looks on while the Cardinals' Gretchen Volk serves during the first set of the Section 2AAA championship match against Marshall at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

“It was really hard,” Willmar senior setter Lydia Larson said about finding holes in the Marshall defense. “We studied film on where their weak spots were and we started hitting there but it just seemed to not work out. They’re a great team; they covered the place all over.

“We started figuring out some shots and I think the biggest thing was they were hitting at us as hard as they could. So, we were hitting back at them as hard as we could and figuring out as much as we could.”

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Willmar senior Lydia Larson sets the ball at the net during the Section 2AAA championship match against Marshall at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

When Marshall’s offense was able to get into rhythm, it was because of outside hitters Leah Jones (20 kills) and Tessa Gannott (11 kills)

“That’s been a good shot for those two all year and we felt like we could do that tonight in this game,” Westby said. “Those two pounded the line and they were able to score.”

With her team trailing 7-2 in the third set, Ruter still saw some fight in her team’s eyes despite the deficit.

“I just told them to leave everything on the floor,” Ruter said. “Looking into their eyes, they all wanted it. I just said, ‘We all know you want it. Work together, get a pass, settle and just go from there.”

With four straight points coming from a Bella Mulder kill, a block, a Marissa Rosen kill and a Marshall error, Willmar tied the third set at 13.

“We just started making good plays and some really smart choices,” Larson said. “We started having fun; that was the biggest thing. We got that fire in our bellies that we could do this once we got those few points.”

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Willmar junior Hannah Stark (1) bumps the ball toward the net while teammate Sydney Schnichels looks on during the Section 2AAA championship match against Marshall Thursday at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Three of the Cardinals’ last four points in the third came from kills by Sydney Schnichels, who had a match-high 21 kills. Not only was she a factor at the net, she also had a handful of kills when attacking from behind the attack line.

“It’s a great outlet to have when you’re not passing well,” Ruter said of the 6-foot-4 Schnichels. “She’s very confident in herself and she goes up and goes for a swing.”

On the Willmar bench, the team’s fight was renewed. But coming out of the break, Marshall flexed its muscles en route to another state berth.

“We knew they’ve been going to state for a long time and they had it in their heads that they were going to do it (again),” said Larson, who finished with 35 set assists. “We just wanted to give them a run for their money and we knew deep down that we could do it.

“It just didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. But we all definitely believed that we could. And the momentum was why we believed that we could do it.”

The Cardinals end the 2021 season with a 22-8 record and will graduate seven seniors: Larson; Rosen; Mackenzie Knofczynski; Payton Freiberg; Abby Samuelson; Bella Mulder; and Kaylena Carranza.

“I told the girls in the locker room that (being) my first year, maybe some of you didn’t agree with what I was doing or buy in right away. But by the end of the year, they all came together,” Ruter said. “They all worked their tails off the whole year.”

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Willmar senior Bella Mulder goes up for an attack during the Section 2AAA championship match against Marshall Thursday at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Marshall 3, Willmar 1

Willmar (22-8) 16 19 25 7
Marshall (30-2) 25 25 22 25
Willmar
Serving (aces): Hannah Stark 1, Gretchen Volk 1, Allie Rosendahl 1, Mackenzie Knofczynski 1 … Set assists: Lydia Larson 35, Stark 1, Knofczynski 1 … Hitting (kills): Sydney Schnichels 21, Marissa Rosen 8, Knofczynski 7, Bella Mulder 3, Larson 2 … Blocking (aces): Schnichels 1, Mulder 1, Dena Mathison 1, Knofczynski 1 … Digs (5 or more): Stark 13, Volk 13, Schnichels 7, Rosendahl 6
Marshall
Serving (aces): Taylor Ariasola 3, Maysa Gillingham 2, Caitlyn Christenson 1, Leah Jones 1, Megan Wegner 1 … Set assists: Gillingham 42 … Hitting (kills): Jones 20, Tessa Ganott 11, Randi Wendorff 6, Ariasola 5, Brooke Andries 3, Gillingham 1, Wegner 1 … Blocking (aces): Andries 3, Ariasola 2, Wendorff 2, Jones 1 … Digs (5 or more): Christenson 22, Jones 14, Gillingham 9, Cassie Hoover 7, Andries 5, Wegner 5

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Willmar senior Marissa Rosen takes a swing against a pair of Marshall blockers during the Section 2AAA championship match Thursday at Marshall High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

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